Grahame Parry: The Urgency of Now
by Michael Paraskos

There is a sense that to-day we live in a period of profound, and often disturbing, change. The financial crisis is perhaps the most obvious example of this, but there is also a real sense of social and cultural change. It is almost as though the crises that marked the end of the Victorian age and gave birth to modernism in the last century are being repeated in our own time, with wars, financial turbulence and social change indicating that a new world – a twenty-first century world – is being formed all around us. Historians often say that the Victorian era really ended in 1910, with the death of King Edward VII, and it looks rather like the twentieth century is scheduled to end equally late, perhaps in 2010. 

For artists this means the current age is one of great excitement, but also anxiety. Just as the artists who dominated nineteenth-century Europe must have looked on the work of modernist newcomers, like Picasso and Matisse, with bemusement and trepidation, so the artists who dominated our culture at the end of the twentieth century must be looking at the current revolution in taste with an equal sense of bafflement and fear. If art history teaches us anything it is simply that the dominant art of one century rarely prevails in the next. In bald terms, this means it is unlikely that the conceptualist art of the last fifty years will dominate the next fifty years, as it will inevitably give way to a new art, just as the Victorian faerie and genre painters of a hundred years ago gave way to abstraction and surrealism. It is impossible to predict what the new art will look like, but that uncertainty is also exciting as it means we can look at every type of artist without being prejudiced or blinkered. Suddenly everything is equally valid (and by implication equally invalid) as we cast around for a new art that expresses the experience of living in a new age. I do not now whether the paintings of Grahame Parry will represent an element of that new art, but there is no doubt he is a serious artist who has an original vision that is rooted in what it means to be alive here and now. Like the best of the new artists, his work tries to speak to its audience of life as it is lived today. It possesses what is called the urgency of now.

How that urgency is manifest is not as straightforward as saying here are paintings of contemporary urban subjects, although there is clearly an element of that in Parry's work. The red and white road signs that appears in Red Cardinal and Here's Looking at You, for example, indicate an element of modern life that is both familiar and insistent, as does the dress-style of many of the female figures that dominate Parry's canvases. But the real manifestation of contemporary life in any art has nothing to do with subject matter at all. Rather it is a question of space. And just as the wholly abstract work of an artist such as Thomas Scheibitz, and the wholly realist images of Clive Head succeed in expressing the urgency of now through the way those artists organise space in their paintings, so Parry creates a spatial illusion in his work that states we are here and it is now. That quality is difficult to translate into words (which is why artists express it in images), but it is certainly possible to see it by trusting in our own sensibilities. By this I mean if we look at these paintings we can consider for ourselves whether the artist is expressing an experience we recognise as being rooted in our world as we live in it to-day. Others might disagree with me, and therefore walk away from these paintings, but I think that for all their abstract quality, and the obvious interest in old movie posters, Parry's paintings do speak to our experience of life here and now in the early twenty-first century. They do this not because of what they show, but because of how they show it. In other words, being contemporary is more about the way space is organised, and objects interact, and colour is used, than picking-up some contemporary subject matter.

Yet, Parry's paintings are also rooted in the history of art. Like most contemporary artists for whom this statement can be made, those roots spread far and wide, so that many different influences seem to appear in these works. This is not surprising given the fact that Parry is an avid reader of books on art history, and there is no doubt that this study that has taken him into some obscure areas of that history. Consequently it is tempting to link Parry's images to the paintings of very early American modernists such as Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth, neither of whom will be well-known names. Like them, Parry combines highly-wrought realist images with simplified abstract forms, and he will superimpose those images in such a way that even the figurative elements operate almost like abstract shapes on the picture surface. Examples of this can be seen in the paintings Humming Birds, The Butterfly Collectors and Wakey! Wakey!, where old matchboxes, flowers and disembodied numbers appear too. Many of these elements look like very definite nods to Demuth in particular, especially in the way they are often painted using an American railroad or circus-style font.
In paintings such as Dicky Birds and Red Carnival, Parry seems to draw more specifically on mid-twentieth century British modernism, and in particular the uniquely British version of Pop Art practised by artists such as Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. Again this can be seen in the type of imagery Parry uses, but also his collaging technique, and use of broad areas of abstract colour and simplified patterns that are designed to tie the disparate elements together in space.

Painted photographs are also a particularly important element in Parry's arsenal of images. Some of these look like they might be holiday snaps taken on a day trip to Brighton, Scarborough or Southend, but others look like they have been taken from newspapers or old movie magazines. They are rendered in paint almost photorealistically, which again might be an echo of earlier American art, perhaps by Philip Pearlstein, Franz Gertsch or even Hilo Chen, but it is a technique that also ties Parry into the contemporary resurgence of interest in Photorealism. 
If there is a single most important influence on Parry's work, however, it is surely his time spent at the Cyprus College of Art, first as a student and then as a tutor and assistant to the Principal Stass Paraskos. There are abstract elements in these paintings that are reminiscent of work by one of the College's tutors, Geoff Rigden, but in the colour and organisation of space it is Paraskos who seems to have had the most impact. Indeed, some of Parry's paintings seem to echo the sculpture wall, known as the Great Wall of Lempa, that surrounds the College's campus near the town of Paphos. Like the images in Parry's canvases, the wall is an amalgam of often very different objects, and it is notable that Parry assisted Paraskos during the main phase of the wall's construction in the 1990s.

Yet Parry's work is also very much his own, and one has a sense that there are very personal narratives going on in the paintings, about which the viewer can (and should) know very little. Most, if not all, artists draw on personal experience to motivate themselves to make art, but art is not a spontaneous outpouring of emotions and it is not a personal confession. As in Parry's case, there is a need in all art for the artist to distance their personal experiences sufficiently well to allow the viewer a space in which to enter into the work of art. In doing so, the viewer, and be extension the community for which the artwork has been created, makes the painting their own. This is a difficult balancing act, requiring the artist to retain enough personal commitment to a work of art to motivate themselves, and to give that work vitality and life; but also necessitating that they depersonalise it to allow the community to engage with it. And that is, in the end, the essence of the urgency of now. It is the urgent need for artists to practise a personal, material and sensual engagement with our existence as we live it now, even though that existence is in a predominantly impersonal, increasingly virtual and often boorish world.