Fictional Portraits by Jonathan Parker
Jonathan Parker has no idea why he paints African American portraits and he doesn’t know who these people are. “I start with a photograph but that is just for the shape of the head,” he tries to explain. He then paints from somewhere inside his head, focused but not controlled. And these portraits emerge.
He shrugged. “I’ve tried to paint white people, but the features, they come out as African Americans. So I just embrace it and don’t worry about it.” The paintings are full of content and stories, very biographical.
The man in Cara #90, a close up from the back, with a neat and trim haircut, collared shirt and pork pie hat, perhaps a professional, seems secured and successful.
He started painting this line of work around 1995. The portraits came and came and none were copied from reference photos or magazines. Each face is fictional, a character derived solely from his imagination. Cara #145, an acrylic on wood piece that is 12” x 8” yet has incredible detail. A man with a twinkle in his eyes, lots of depth, the hint of a smile to come, but hard work in his face. His pork pie hat askew, he is happy and a little defiant.
Cara #114 is one of Parker’s larger works at 65” x 65”, acrylic on canvas, it is a powerful piece and dominates a space. A young woman or an older girl, hair braided with ribbons and pink ball hair ties and a bear barrette. She appears unhappily resigned, maybe in a uniform because it’s white, the nose flaring, the jaw set, there is some hardship in the face yet resilience as well. He names most of the paintings “cara” which means face in Spanish.
The most remarkable paintings that Parker does are the portraits from behind. He had done a number of portraits and wanted to turn the heads, paint something more difficult, to see if he could paint from the side or the back and still emit emotion. He said, “the first one I did it was ‘Oh yeah.’” He says that to bring “expression and emotion to the back of someone’s head in a painting involves a different perceptual experience than painting a face and relies on less specific cues than features, such as hair, the tilting of the head and the back of the ears.”
The woman dressed in traditional hajib, Cara #127, is another 12” x 12” done in 2010. Here, you see the very traditional khimār (headdress) and the veil wrapped around the head and draping off the back. Is she a farmer’s wife in Afghanistan? A defiant school girl in Paris? The image is provocative and thoughtful.
Cara #118, and I’m making this up, he’s from Chicago, a young guy but confident, in good shape, dressed nicely no nonsense (no tattoos, no earring, no hair) where Ten Twenty Two is more laid back with his fedora, thin older man, sitting down, enjoying some sun.
Ten Twenty Two
Ten Twenty Two, acrylic on wood is a 12” x 12” piece that tells an entire story from behind. The man is older, close to retirement. His arms are skinny, his hands small, so he probably worked hard but maybe agricultural work, and not construction. While his life has not been easy, he is still optimistic, his hat tilted back on his head.
The young man at the fence, is he looking out a peep hole, playing hide and go seek or crying after being bullied? The sassy tilt of the pork pie hat, the well groomed man with his white shirt would be a professional but tweaks his personality a little with hat.
Many of the portraits were 12” x 12” and then he did the large format at 65” x 65” and they make impressive pieces in a gallery. Lately he is working in a slightly larger format from the 12” x 12” on canvas. All of his paintings are with acrylic — he finds that the color palette is fine for him.
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Each is its own story, incredibly evocative and content rich. The images come straight from his subconscious. “I go into a different space, I don’t know what happens.” He said that it wasn’t like a trance. He could get distracted and interrupted but when he focused the painting appeared. He starts by choosing a reference usually from a picture for the shape of the head and does a drawing on the wood or canvas. He then layers on the paint and it isn’t until he had laid down several coats that the work begins to take shape and he starts to see the painting he wants. The process involves focusing on the gestures of the brushstrokes and tuning everything else out. He says he does this subconsciously, going in and out of short dream-like states that get easier and easier with practice.
Parker first thought about painting when he hung out with his artist friends who all went to art school and they would go from gallery to gallery, talking the talk and worrying about going to present art here and there. Parker thought, I’d like to try this. With the encouragement of his friends, he started to paint and basically to teach himself to draw.
Dogs, horses, gorillas, mostly animals were Parker’s first subjects for painting. He started very simple with silhouettes, cut outs, and folk art drawings, some of it whimsical and comical. In the early 80’s he started doing more focused figurative work and around 1995 the portraits began to appear.
“I had these wood blocks so decided to paint on them and something happened unlike anything I had painted before.”
The Intersection for the Arts in the mid 1990’s was his first show with these portraits.
Because he is a white American, Parker has recieved some strange reactions when people see his work and then meet him in person. He is resigned to the reaction — and just keeps producing the paintings.-
When pressed, he states the only reference for his images come from when he was living back East around the age of 18, the Black Panthers resonated with him. Then, when he came west to live in Oakland around the mid 1970’s, he was in the center of the black power movement, the next generation of civil rights.
Parker still paints some of his dogs, currently acrylic on paper, they are bright and personable, sweet and folky. He produced a small children’s book entitled Circus Dogs. With a long standing day job as the law librarian at Farella Braun & Martel LLP, a nine to five job, Parker has plenty of time at night to come home and paint. Unless he has a show coming up, weekends are free from painting.-
Currently Parker’s work can be seen at the gallery of Jack Fisher located in San Francisco.
Having a series of successful shows and artist residencies including Yaddo, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and Headlands Center for the Arts Affiliate Artist Program; Parker received a Fleishhacker Foundation San Francisco Bay Regional Painting Fellowship. Two of his paintings are in the permanent collection of the Oakland Museum. His work is also part of private and corporate collections, including the David & Lucile Packard Foundation and the Kaiser Foundation.
Other works can be viewed on Jonathan Parker’s website
Allison A. Davis is a poet, novelist , essayist and lawyer. She has written extensively on San Francisco performance/multimedia art in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. She just finished her first novel and is working on her second. She lives in both San Francisco and New Orleans.You can follow her at @allisondavis531 on Twitter.