interview / liz rice mccray

Erik Parker is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He’s well known for his vividly colored paintings, otherworldly forms and distorted shapes. Speaking with Erik Parker we were struck with his positivity and charming personality. Erik has been awarded several honors throughout his career and has had solo exhibitions at galleries and museums around the world. We were excited to catch up with Erik and find out more about his current solo show, “New Mood,” at Mary Boone Gallery, New York, NY. Many thanks to Erik Parker for answering our questions, and dealing with all the crosstalk.

Erik Parker: Hello?
Liz McCray: Hi. Sorry, had to call you from another phone.
It’s okay. That’s fine.

[Rhythmic Saxophone plays free jazz in the background…]

Okay, perfect. So let’s start… [Awkward laugh…] Now that I’ve told you so many times how awkward I am.
It’s like whenever the comedian Louis CK, who no one can like anymore, says his most difficult thing is starting the show. Those awkward timings, it’s like okay, we’re just going to start the show. I guess it’s weird right? If you’re going to talk somewhere, the period of waiting around before the talk seem to be the most awkward time of actually giving the talk.

Yeah, I always psych myself out. So, you’re awfully comfortable.
I have it easy man, because if I were to really prep for this thing, if I can’t answer your questions then I don’t know. I do this all day every day, so…

You’re good; you come off great in interviews. I’m just going to stick my foot in my mouth about 20 times in this interview.
That’s okay. The questions are really good.

I love that you’re giving me validation in this interview. I’m the one that’s supposed to be validating you. It’s pretty funny. So let’s start… And I’m not that good at free styling, so therefore I’m going back to my questions.
I thought that we started already.

Yeah we did, we did, we did. Okay, so where are you right now?
I’m in a storage closet in my studio.

Oh, really?
In my studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on the North side. I’ve had this studio since 2001 so the whole world around me in this neighborhood has completely changed since I’ve been here.

How big is the storage closet?
This particular closet is probably ten by five.

Wow. Nice.
It’s completely filled so I have just to kind of, it’s just filled with my stuff.

I like it. I’m in my 1985 Mercedes Turbo Wagon.
Diesel or…?

Diesel, yeah. And it’s really hot and I have no windows down, so.
All right, well let’s make this short so you don’t suffocate.

Ha-ha ok let’s see… How did you get into painting in the first place?
Well, here’s how it goes short answer: dropped out of high school, got into a little bit of trouble, and probation officer said if you get your GED we’ll knock off half the time of your probation for these things that you’ve done. So I got my GED and then he said we’ll knock off the other half if you get enrolled in community college. So I went to a community college and the only thing that I was told I was good at was drawing, by my mom. So I went to a painting studio, and I was like dude, awesome. You guys are going to cut my time off. Then you get a grant because we’re kind of a lower income family. I don’t think I would have got as much help today but basically, I made more by just painting than working in a dry cleaning plant – that’s what I did before that. So yeah, the idea was do you want to work in a dry cleaning plant or do you want to paint? So I just walked in the painting studio, I was like, “I want to paint”. This was in San Antonio, which would probably have been 1991.

Yeah. And I was born in 1968, so how ever old that puts me.

Yeah, you’re 50? Sorry – foot in mouth.
I’ll be 50 in September, yeah.

Didn’t mean to throw in numbers into conversation.
It’s okay; I’m very comfortable with it.

Okay good, I’m glad you’re comfortable with your age.
I have no choice.

Yeah, you got to embrace it. You can’t fight it, and as my husband says, “Logan’s run, you die at 30.”

Tell us about your show right now, “New Mood” at Mary Boon Gallery. I like the name, the title; it’s a really good title.
Yeah, that came from this medicine, it’s this herbal kind of thing, it’s always on my Instagram feed when I’m looking through stuff. I don’t know why, you know how you get those sponsored things on Instagram? You’re like, “why is this thing coming up?” This is the first time I’ve ever worked for the art dealer Mary Boone, and I think that she wasn’t sure how I worked, so she would just call and be like, “What’s the title of the show?” And I was a little frustrated to have to tell her it just seemed so early, so I was just like “New Mood.” And she was like, “Great!” And then so, yeah I just took that from there. And it seems kind of correlated with what’s going on with the work.

New Mood like medication.
Yeah, yeah, that’s what it is. I lifted it from this herbal thing that’s supposed to make you calm or something.

An antidepressant for coping with the world.
Exactly, and the world is supposed to be this way. We just find out about everything so fast now. It’s always been messed up.

I know, we’re living in real time. You can’t take time to process anything anymore.
No, ’cause it’s just there. And that’s just how a lot of these paintings I think work for me, the ones that I make. If you look at the pyramid-shaped paintings, you can’t find a hierarchy except for the form of the pyramid, which implicates hierarchy right away, because of the structure, right?

At the top, that’s a hierarchy, the bottom is the not hierarchy, the low-archy. And so on, but if you go within that, if you take away that structure, it’s just bombardment of little images over and over again, a lot like our Instagram feeds. A lot like, even if we watch the news today, you’ll look at the news, if you’re looking at it on your television or your laptop, there’s more news at the bottom, it’s going up the side, it’s banners of more information.

Sensory overload.
Yeah, so it’s like an asymmetrical information system that we have. Probably 50 years ago, no one could read it. If you showed someone a Snapchat feed 50 years ago, they wouldn’t even know how to register it, make a narrative of it. But now you can do a whole advertisement in that duration of time. We can sell a product in that quick of a time.

It’s mind blowing.
Yeah, it’s cool.

I was going to actually ask you about your positives and negatives about technology.
Positives are Apple Pay or whatever. Also… you know it’s weird, I was just thinking, now I have this thing in my house where I go, “Hey Siri, play whatever.” So if you were a jazz nerd before all of this, it was a lot of work. You had to spend money and be like, I don’t know this version of this record in mono is not that good, but now it’s just… so the positive is that I could be a jazz nerd, get it done within six months. Like how you binge watch TV, as a music head you can just find out everything you need to find out immediately, and go through the whole catalog and find out the next person or whatever. So to me that’s really great.

But the downside is that they are gonna be selling privacy at some point. Privacy might be a commodity, because they’re selling it all, we’re taking part in this stuff, they know everything about us. That is where they make their money. So I don’t think we’ve figured out how to really deal with that, as you can see right now with Facebook. So downside is that probably. But it’s worth it. [Laughing] I got all of John Coltrane’s albums in a second.

So let’s talk about your creative process, do you use music with your creative process?
Yeah, constantly. That’s why I just left the closet and went out into the street. Because we have people working in there and I don’t want to set the vibe and turn off the music and everyone get self-conscious. Yeah, every day mostly in the forms of these radio stations that are basically NTS Radio or Lot Radio, which is right across the street from my studio which are just radio shows with people spinning records or whatever. And I listen to a lot of that. NTS radio is out of London. I’m just nerding out constantly on everything. I’m at 10-hours a day listening to stuff or podcasts, like Democracy Now. I’ve been into Free Jazz a lot lately. So new music is kind of weird, I tend to go towards stuff from the 70’s. I really like a new jazz musician on the West coast called Kamasi Washington, he’s pretty badass. This electronic musician called Fourtet, he’s really good. All types of stuff, man. I don’t know if you really listen to a full album like you used to anymore.

I have a question, what’s your biggest accomplishment as of now in your life?
My professional life?

Either one, professional, non-professional, something that you want to brag about.
Having my family, creating my own family.

Yeah, that’s rad.
And keeping it stuck together, I have three daughters and an amazing wife. I was just thinking that the other day, everyone’s there in the living room, everyone was dancing and we were listening to the new Cardi B record and I was watching the girls dance, and their ages span from 25 to 11.

Everyone seemed happy, you know? That’s number one, and everyone’s healthy and stuff like that. So on the personal level that’s extremely rewarding, yeah.

That’s huge, and what about professional?
You know, I can’t believe that I even know Mary Boone or Peter Saul. It’s just crazy. Or my friend Kenny Scharf, just so grateful that any of this ever happened. It wasn’t supposed to be this way at all. The cards are not stacked that way and I don’t know, I guess if you’re kind of like a cockroach with something, they can’t kill you, you just keep fighting. Next thing you know you’re like, I’m having lunch with Mary Boone, KAWS or someone.

Yeah, I like you; you have a lot of gratitude. I like that.
Man, so much. Listen, yeah, our jobs are pretty cool.

What offends you? Let’s go into that one.

Yeah, what offends you? What pisses you off?
Listen, not a whole lot. If we can call it an industry, what I do, the art industry, they like to say it’s not but it really is. They pretend like it’s not, it’s supposed to be culture or whatever, but let’s just call it an industry. And you see, a lot of people operate on some negative vibes, and we don’t have to at all. Listen, you can’t like everything, that doesn’t mean someone else can’t like it. As corny as it sounds, just negative bullshit is whack, especially when we’re all talking about painting or whatever. We’re kind of privileged and lucky we’re not born in Syria. They just were born and next thing you know drones are bombing the fuck out of them, governments gassing them, whatever’s going on, we don’t even know ’cause we got 14 kinds of water to choose from or I can’t believe the lattes here, they don’t have hemp milk.

So as you said, you grew up in Texas.
Yeah, that’s right.

Your paintings are super loaded, there’s a lot going on. Certain color shades, penetrating lines, rock climbers, and curves. Lots going on, intertwined, and it’s all connected. And when you look deeper you see something else, and it’s more stories and more stories inside of this painting. How do you start? How do you conceptualize the piece? Do you start with the detail or do you… do you have an idea of where you’re going prior to creating?
Well, if you’re looking at some of the images I sent you, the ones with the head shape or portraits, I just find a head shape from the Internet, stock photography, because behind that, if they’re using it in advertising it probably works as a simplified form. So I look for a shape that is simple, that we all can kind of recognize for whatever reason, not who it is but the form itself. And then slowly break that apart and twist it and rebuild it. So you kind of take the familiar and make it strange, I guess. There’s not really one way I go about making it. I just have a bunch of things going on at one time and kind of just think. I’m not gonna really push it because there’s no need to if you have something else to go work on. Painting is a process that you feel like a genius and then three seconds later you’re a complete idiot, all day long.

When I’m working with in the studio, I kind of just remove myself, that’s kind of a luxury. I don’t work with a goal like, today this painting is going to be done. It’s not that way. And the way they finish, you can’t even tell if it’s done or not, strangely. It’s like there’s a whole bunch of seeds planted all the time and then there’s a harvest season, I guess it seems like. I start finishing them all after the other but it’s a lot of struggle. It’s spread out over a period of time, in the middle of it you’re like, I’m never going to do these again, this is ridiculous. Why do these take so long, and then as soon as they’re done, you forget you even did them and next thing you know you’re committed to do more of them. You forget instantly what that was like. It’s like having kids. You’re like, oh we should have another one, and then you do and you’re like, what the fuck. You just forgot years one to seven, gone. Or like a puppy, I want a puppy. And then the dude who has the puppy right then will be like, “No dude, you don’t, they suck. They’re assholes.” Like, what the hell did I get myself into…

It’s pretty cool you give credit to a lot of different artists that have influenced you, so which artists?
On a lot of different levels I feel like I get influenced by people, and the people I’m close to, like my friend Todd James, Tomoo Gokito and KAWS, Greg Bogin, Peter Saul, Dana Schutz, Joyce Penato. The guy who made the Funkadelic record covers, his name is Pedro Bell. I hear he’s not doing too well health-wise, but you look at those old Funkadelic record covers, they’re out of control. There’s nothing that looks like that. And also, it’s a perfect match to what the music is, which, there’s nothing that sounds like Funkadelic. To this day, you can’t touch those guys. They’ve got better guitar riffs than most rock music at that time, intertwined with, they’re just Funkadelic, man. I like Pedro Bell a lot. Christine Ramberg, she was an artist from Chicago that passed away at young age in 1995. I really love her paintings; she is one of the best and is starting to get more mainstream attention, which is awesome!

Not to be depressing, but when it’s all done how would you like to be remembered?
Any way at all, as long as someone’s remembering the work.

 I like that answer.
Just a remembrance would be fine.