Words & Photography by : Monica Uszerowicz
Far too many analogies have been drawn between human existence and sport: the need to stay in the game, the drive and force it takes to never give up, the fraught, thin line between winning and losing and what each signify. Few can make the comparison as eloquently and poignantly, though, as Los Angeles artist Kenton Parker, whose upcoming show at Primary Projects in Miami is entitled Contender. Opening during Art Basel Miami Beach 2013, the pieces in Contender — much like the rest of Parker’s work — are weaved, seamlessly and inextricably, into and throughout his psyche: there is little separation between his emotive experience and his art. Hence the title — Parker was an athletic kid, and he’s a steadfast adult, refreshingly open about the ways in which challenges and heartache simultaneously shape his creative output and force him to continue flowing ever onward, whatever the difficulty, despite it all. You know: staying in the game.
Consider his hand-built flower ‘shop’, a key component in Contender: titled Always Sorry, the flowers themselves reference the frailty of humanity, the precious cycle of life and death and sometimes life again. The title seems obvious, an allusion to the flowers given and received post-argument. Accompanying Always Sorry is a series of photographs by Patrick Hoelck for which Parker was both producer and subject — the images capture the ebbs and tides of emotion evoked by his life journey; he is victorious, humiliated, victorious again, exposed, earnest and funny.
Though there are videos, humorous installations and, in keeping with his upbringing as a graffiti writer, large-scale murals in Parker’s oeuvre, it contains a tight thread of humanity; the divine, tragic comedy of tenderness and strength it all yields. Parker’s work acts as a direct response to itself, a message to turn both the best and worst into work, with equal abandon and honesty. It’s an internal competition, and winning is unnecessary — it’s about continuing to move. BRACE spoke to him about not only refusing to give up, but turning both the most laughable and difficult of everything into candid work.
Monica Uszerowicz: When did you first start creating anything, even during childhood? When did the need to make things come about?
Kenton Parker: I recently got my baby book from my mom; it was things that she saved from my youth. I have drawings from when I was three or four years old in there. She basically collected every single drawing I had ever done. I remember, when we lived in Korea, my parents hired someone to give us drawing lessons, me and my
MU: What were your drawing lessons like?
KP: It was mostly still lifes. Being ten years old and in Asia at that time, I was collecting Transformers, other toys. I was already in collecting mode, saving every box — Virgo style, not opening the box, just saving them. The art just going through different phases — on the streets, in high school, in college, back on the streets, then in galleries, back on the streets.
MU: Did you do graffiti?
KP: Yeah, I’m involved with The Seventh Letter and AWR. The young kids that are all active; that’s all MSK. I think graffiti teaches you scale. I was studying graphic design in college, so I have an understanding of fonts and type. Graphic design teaches you scale, too, but until you get out there on the street… I mean, I do something different than graffiti now, but I paint with the best kids in the world. I think that’s what makes it all fit together. In Korea, I had always been into collecting, and that extended to me collecting art. I think that’s a big part of being an artist—being a collector, giving support to your peer group, investing back in what you do.
MU: You’re an LA artist, but you’re showing in Miami. I understand you’re aware of the importance of giving back to the community. Does being bi-coastal factor into that idea of being involved with a larger community? How is the kind of support system you have here different than the one you have in LA?
KP: This whole show — I’ve done all the production here, had to meet brand new vendors; the amount of love and help that’s come from sources here is incredible. Miami’s art and culture scene is so supportive of each other. It’s made of love and support. I think LA is a little bit different. It’s a little bit more vast, more entertainment-based—movies, TV shows. Art is a little secondary there. But you go through my graffiti crew or something there — which is super big and strong — and you develop your own support system. Your best friends there are your support system. Support comes when support is given. I would love to make a trillion dollars and open up a homeless shelter and worry about my house later. So many people have helped me out.
MU: I was looking at the pages of your sketchbook, thinking about the name of the flower shop in your upcoming show — Always Sorry — and it seems like you don’t really separate yourself, or your mind, from the work you make. I wanted to know if you could explain the personhood of your work. What kind of emotions drive what you create? That could be a cheesy question in another situation, but the emotion in your work seems so clear.
KP: I think my work is like a journalistic look at my life, at my daily routine, especially in this show. I was trying to tackle a very personal issue: the vulnerability of being a human, the different dichotomies and contradictions of it. I feel so lucky that I have the opportunity to go through my daily life and then make something about it and bring it out to the world. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the right thing to do all the time, but I feel like whatever I go through ends up on the page as art. I feel weird saying this, but it’s like a therapy scenario—I don’t treat it like that, but my work is about my life and the trip I’m on. If I’m going through a bunch of shit, that’s going to come out in the work. What begins as pain ends up on the canvas, or in another medium.
MU: I see a lot of people trying to push their emotions away, using sarcasm to distance themselves from what they’re actually feeling. It’s easy to tease or joke about something that’s honest. But you do it in such a way that’s so real that it shouldn’t be mocked. Does that make sense?
KP: It’s all these very personal ideas: being nicer to a stranger than to the person you love… This show was just really powerful to me. I don’t make art for anyone; I make art for myself. That’s why I’m so happy about this bond with the gallery. If you can’t fucking laugh at yourself, who the fuck are you? I think that is so important. I think people are…well, they’re not necessarily trying to put out something that’s cool or safe, but I’m definitely not safe. I’m not trying to be cool. I feel like the best artist is an honest artist. The whole basis of this show is the idea that, if you can be in your game every week, why can’t you win?
MU: It’s okay to get your heart broken, to get shit thrown at you…
KP: That’s exactly it. That’s real life, that’s reality. Who has an undefeated season? I grew up playing sports—soccer, baseball, bicycle racing. My dad’s this crazy, military sports hero.
MU: Does that have anything to do with your trophy installations?
KP: The trophies are very much about competition amongst your peer group. Not necessarily the piece of plastic, but what your family went through to earn a piece of plastic. Like Olympic medals—Olympic athletes are often bankrupt, but they went through so much to just win a ribbon or a trophy. It was a validation worth the hard work. Some went through divorces or experienced death in the middle of training — does that play out in the end.
MU: You were saying your work is kind of like a therapy. Is it a form of catharsis to do it, like a purge?
KP: I feel like a narcissist hermit. I love being alone and I love being onstage. And yeah, it is such a purge to do this. So many times, I have to wake up in the morning and say to myself, “Who do I have to say sorry to?”
KP: I’m super emotional and people don’t always know how to handle it. I’m really good at not thinking before I speak — like a stick of dynamite, I’ll come out with all these emotions. It’s heavy — putting that kind of heaviness onto someone else is melodramatic, and is that the right thing to do? Should I just shut up and not talk as much? Probably.
MU: Why does it feel good to turn those emotions into a work? Do you start to view yourself a little more objectively?
KP: I don’t know, actually. When I was doing the performance piece we shot for Contender, I was going through all my concepts in all my books, so every single pose was thought out very methodically. It’s like a stop-motion movie. But it was also just like, “This is what I do; this is who I am.” Half the show is about this weird breakup, feeling really alone after feeling really passionate. But it’s not all break-up: we merged it with some of the newer concepts, which are like, “Wait a minute. The sun still comes up tomorrow. It comes up every day.” You get a new chance to live your life every single day, no matter how bad it gets… Once you know that you’re your own worst enemy, you have a good chance of trying to fix that. You realize your problems first and then you can start to work on them.
MU: What does it mean for you to overthink?
KP: It sucks when you go to sleep and you think in your dreams, and then you wake up and still think. I’m just like anyone else; I get overwhelmed by scenarios. But I don’t look at things negatively anymore. I used to be a pessimist, but I’m extremely positive now. I think I’ve always taken things very sensitively or defensively, and not being defensive anymore is really helpful. If I really sit back and think about everything going wrong, I’m going to sit in a corner and be super overwhelmed, but I know that everything always works out in the end. Growing up is fun and hard and exciting, and I think that it’s never too late to be the person that you truly are. It’s never too late to change. Just because you had a bad scenario doesn’t mean it has to be like that forever. Change is good.
MU: It seems like Contender is the most all-encompassing of your work. I’m curious about how you moved toward this show.
KP: The title is about being in the game. If you’re not in the game, you don’t have a chance. I’ve been knocked out so many times and knocked out other people so many times — there’s no undefeated scenario in my life. It comes from falling down and banging your head.
MP: How do the photos in the show factor into that?
KP: I felt like photography was the best medium for that. When you take a photo, you really capture that second in time. You can’t really get that from a painting or a sculpture. A photo doesn’t lie. A photo really is capturing a millisecond of history. I can look at a big painting and get dramatic about it, but photos are real. The photos in the show are real. Whether it’s a shot where I look kind of buff or one where I look kind of fat, it’s the shot. It’s about showing real human nature and emotion through the portrait.
MU: Although the show is deeply self-referential and personal, it touches on the human condition, too. How is this very personal show also very universal?
KP: Even though the show is super personal, I feel like everyone can relate to this. I kept my face covered in a lot of the photos, so that you could see yourself within the emotions. The flower shop is certainly about life and death, but it’s also called Always Sorry, because I think a lot of guys know about flowers in the sense of using them to apologise. But I don’t want to spell out the flower shop entirely — it’s the viewer who completes the piece and gets different things out of it. If you couldn’t see the flowers, you could still smell them. I think there’s an atmosphere in Contender that hasn’t been in my past installations. You’ll feel the mister, smell the flowers, you can touch things. Flowers are just beautiful, but the fact that they’re so fragile represents life to me.
MU: How and when and why did you become your work? I can’t see you making work that comments on anything other than humanity, the mind.
KP: Every day I get up and free-write and make these text pieces. Whatever comes to my head, I jot down. When you go through 30 or 40 text pieces a day, I mean, I’d say that’s my therapy. One thousand ideas are not meant to turn into things, but every concept is as important or as fragile as the next. It makes me think of you asking me about how I deal with my life when I think all day. I deal with it by writing every single thing down. I know that every single thing isn’t that magic opportunity, but if you don’t write it down, how do you go back to it? My life is of notes. If I lost my hands, I would still keep writing.
MU: It doesn’t seem like you’re trying to get out of your head, but rather that you’re learning to work with what’s there. You’re not trying to escape from it.
KP: I don’t think there’s any escaping from yourself! You don’t escape from the thoughts. You learn to be a better person. I don’t live in the past; I’m very much an existentialist. I believe whatever happened today already happened, and tomorrow is a whole different scenario.