A black-and-white tennis shoe stuffs itself into the jaw of a prop skull. A rubber chicken cranes its gangly neck toward the viewer.
These images and more make up the subject matter of DigiPen art professor Doug Parry’s latest body of work, titled the “Comedy of Terrors,” a grab bag of familiar gags presented in a series of 22 still life paintings.
While the works may come off as a bit of a joke, Parry’s process for arriving at the final punch line involved a very serious and introspective journey. A professional artist for 25 years — he earned his BFA in printmaking from the University of Washington in 1988 and an MFA in painting from the Pratt Institute in 2000 — Parry has long used painting as a means to explore psychological struggle.
“I always say that’s my bottom line. If you were to go, ‘Hey, Doug. How’s it going?’ And I say, ‘Oh, I’m fine.’ But in reality I’m divorced or have cancer or whatever,” Parry says. “We front a lot to make people not worry, but it’s that stuff that’s really in there that’s interesting to me.”
For several, years Parry worked with a group of models who acted out scenes and memories from the artist’s life, using props and costumes in front of a rickety stage set. Parry used that setup to create various series of narrative and symbolic still life paintings. But when Parry got underway on his newest series of paintings, focusing on the props themselves, he soon hit a wall.
“When I was putting those things together, I was looking at them thinking, ‘Oh my God. This is just so cryptic. No one gets what these things are,” Parry says. “They’re not even surreal. They’re just junk.”
Parry was also at a personal crossroads. He had recently returned to his native Seattle area due to family reasons, reluctantly leaving behind a life in Brooklyn. Feeling disconnected from the relatively young and trendy Northwest art scene, Parry began to question the value and purpose of his work. Eventually, heeding the advice of a visiting friend and art critic, Parry decided to acquire some new props and objects.
“And so I go buy a rubber skull, a rubber chicken, rubber nose, rubber ears — novelty things that just thrill me,” Parry says. “Because that’s kind of the way I was feeling by now. I was feeling like the rubber chicken. I was feeling deflated. I was feeling, ‘This has never been funny.’”
The result was a bit of a breakthrough: a coming to terms of art as a joke.
“In fact, I think that’s one of the greatest things about fine art is it doesn’t doanything,” Parry says. “It just gets us thinking.”
Now in his first year as a full-time faculty member, Parry says there are parallels to his own experience that relate to the things he teaches at DigiPen. Parry constantly sees students who collapse under stress, stumble over tiny mistakes, and get overwhelmed in a crowd of other talented artists.
Parry says he refers his students to the final fight scene near the end of The Matrix, when the protagonist Neo pauses and opens his eyes to see the truth of the simulated world around him. It’s a cheesy example, he says, but a good illustration of letting go to regain perspective.
“If they can’t draw, they can’t move on here. But if their mindset is good and they’re not worried about whether they can draw or not, they usually tend to draw better,” Parry says. “So teaching them things to really take the pressure off of themselves is a big thing.”
Parry’s paintings will be exhibited Oct. 19 through Nov. 25 at Art 101 in Brooklyn. His work will also be showing in December at Art Basel in Miami and in 2013 at The Armory Show in New York City. You can check out more images of Parry’s work at www.neoimages.net.