Jay Parnell on Historical Narrative, Christian Iconography and Modern Mythology
In this seventh part of our continuing series on artists in the diaspora who promote Black identity and pride through their work, we present American painter Jay Parnell. Other artists presented in this series include Portuguese painter and designer Mario Henrique, Canadian artist Tim Okamura and African American painter Dean Mitchell.
Parnell has been drawing and painting most of his life and he primarily uses oil on board to create his beautiful, surreal images. What characterises his work is his lush palette filled with earth tones. Often the characters Parnell’s painting represent a segment of the vibrant inner life of African Americans, immediately identifiable in the poems of James Baldwin, the prose of Toni Morrison, and the hip hop jams of Saul Williams.
Parnell attended Ball State University and received a B.Sc in telecommunications in 1992. His photography skills proved useful in his first job right out of college, when he worked as an illustrator and photographer for Ball Corporation. A few years later, he decided to focus primarily on art. His work combines elements of historical narrative painting and Christian iconography to question modern mythology in a timeless manner. While his subject is the human figure, his mediums have evolved over the years from pen and ink to water colour, acrylic and then oils. In this interview with Omenka, he discusses his work, its historical narrative and subjects.
You attended the Ball State University and received a B.Sc. in telecommunications in 1992, after which you worked as a professional photographer for about 10 years, then switched to illustration. Why the career change to painting and how have these separate genres impacted on your practice as a painter?
I transitioned to painting from photography and illustration as part of my evolution as an artist. Both disciplines are fundamental to how I think and work today.
Your work “combines elements of historical narrative painting and Christian iconography to question modern mythology in a timeless manner”. How do you combine these two different approaches, and what is the significance of this process?
Christian iconography is a part of my technical narrative. My central figures stand alone as icons in landscapes and simple spaces. Their presence brings a personal history that I leave for viewers to interpret.
What criteria is used in selecting subjects for your paintings including She Carries Shoes, Somebody’s Child, Farewell Song and Lion – part of an on-going series of paintings of little Black boys –, are they random or familiar, and what significance do they bring to the interpretations of each work?
My subjects are characters. Some are familiar but most are not. I choose each character as a vehicle for storytelling and skin colour is a major criteria in my decision making. Other things I consider are facial expressions and clothing. Every person that appears is fully developed.
Your painting Strange Weather, 2017, oil on wood, was chosen for the 2018–2019 High Art Billboard Program, and depicts two young men locked arm in arm against the background of a foreboding landscape while confronting the viewers with questions, their hopes and fears. What inspired the painting and what do you aim to achieve with it?
The idea for Strange Weather originated concept of in-group loyalty and fraternal solidarity. The stance is about ownership and boundaries. The title comes from the way news is covered these days. Truth is the exception and every bad thing that happens can be explained as if it were strange weather.
Please tell us about your influences and how your practice has evolved over time, since your first solo show at the J Martin Gallery in 2002.
My influences and studio practice have evolved separately. Several artists have influenced my work over the years but the work of 3 men have served as my standards.
- Odd Nerdrum. Seeing his work is comparable to seeing eternity. What he paints and how he paints is outside of time. He is truly touched by the gods.
- Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth has a way of energising everyday objects to make them seem magical. His work never sits still. Every time I view his work, I find something new to love.
- Brad Holland. Illustration is art. Holland’s pen and ink drawings are sublime. I can look at his old drawings and see Rembrandt is his squiggles.
My studio practice has been refined over the years because I have moved from acrylic paint on Masonite to oil paint on wood panels. My practice is about time, process and mindset.
Often your characters represent the inner life of African Americans, as exemplified by Not Today and Requiem for New Orleans, which may be understood as an act or token of remembrance. Would you agree to this later assertion and at point did you decide to promote Black identity and pride?
I would agree that Requiem is about remembrance. Not Today is about internal dialogue and forgetting.
I began thinking more deeply about Black identity and different aspects of Black life in the early 2000’s. There are well-worn tropes about being Black that are honest but shallow. By dealing with the active inner lives of Black people I have endeavoured to give my viewers a perspective they didn’t know they were looking for.
With works like Relative, your ‘Kin Folks’ series has been well received by collectors and critics alike. Please explain the thinking behind it, as well as new directions you may embark on while revisiting this theme.
The ‘Kin Folk’ series was born when I decided to paint images of my ancestors. After I finished a few of my relatives, I began to paint the kin folk of others. The idea of having paintings of one’s ancestors appeals to me. It’s also a complicated concept. Choosing to paint in this manner is politically charged.
I have several ideas on ways to move this series forward. I won’t share yet as I have not really clarified my vision or settled on a timetable.
Not Quite Happy is a fine example of one of your miniatures. What role does scale play in the meaning and interpretation of your work, do you consider works like this as finished paintings in themselves, or are they preliminary studies for larger and more complex work?
Working on miniatures provides many benefits to me. Small scale work is easily manageable, intimate, and is easily placed in any collection. I also appreciate the jewel-like quality of creating work you can hold in one hand.
I don’t do painted studies so most of my miniatures are finished pieces. When I do studies they are usually drawings.
According to you another painting Better Angels, is “an appeal to emerge from darkness and walk in the light”. How do these words provide a deeper understanding of Black male figure that features prominently against a dark background, with a rabbit sitting astride either shoulder. He casts a bold and confident gaze decked in a white shirt with flared collar and two buttons undone, overlaid by a jacket patterned in military-style camouflage.
Better Angels is special for me because so many things came together at once. Emerging from the darkness and walking in the light is a choice we all make every day. We are in the midst of a spiritual war in which no one gets a pass. I consider this image to be a proxy self-portrait.
Still Waiting is drawn from a song by Prince, of the same title. What is it about the iconic singer and songwriter’s early oeuvre that inspires you to create a body of work after him?
I have been a fan of Prince’s music since I was in middle school. I find that the lyrics from his songs creep into many of my works. His early work will probably be with me forever because I was so young and impressionable when I first heard it. But I doubt that I will ever create an entire body of work based on his lyrics.
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