If performance art were a competitive team sport capable of generating billions, then talent scouts would recognize in the British performance artist, painter and musician Bob Parks that most lucrative and rare of qualities: natural ability. In his impulsive, unsettling and rapturous work, there is an easy, unaffected pairing of art and everyday life. The doyens of Dada, Surrealism and Futurism sought to bring about this change through the destruction of bourgeois society (and sometimes people), but Parks’s work sidesteps these violent notions. His focus is on self-directed action, on the use of his own body and art as cathartic sitesof experimentation and examples of personal liberty. Instead of the stentorian bluster of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Parks preaches a philosophy of the ecstatic – a shimmering, Hammond-soaked testimonial that draws on a gospel-inflected sensibility he calls ‘the R&B feeling’.
‘And the Heavens Cried’ at Grand Union – a project space in Digbeth, Birmingham’s burgeoning arts district – presented alarge collection taken from Parks’s autobiographical oeuvre. Paintings, sculptures, combines, psychedelic wallpaper and archival ephemera from 1969 – the year Parks, now London-based, graduated from Leicester College of Art – to the present, were spread across the windows, wallsand floor. The absence of corresponding dates or titles was initially jarring, but thisstrategy of categorical anonymity was actually a crucial decision made by curator Jenine McGaughran Guard. Without labels, the exhibition was able to move froma simple retrospective, charting the development of a practice through discrete chronological increments, towards the more affective and immersive gestaltterritory of installation. As such, ‘And the Heavens Cried’ painted a narrative in broad strokes, allowing the viewer to see themost instrumental moments, events and characters in the development of Parks’s liberatory project.
Reappearing in many different guises throughout the exhibition, Parks’s recently deceased mother is a pivotal figure. By turns muse, matriarch and emotional ballast, she died after a car accident earlier this year in which Parks was the driver.That fateful event and its emotional repercussions were recounted in a disquieting triptych that comprised Parks’s handwritten account, penned immediately after the collision, a large photograph of his mother, and sections of painted abstraction. It is an intensely powerful work; surveying it felt disconcertingly intimate, even voyeuristic. Before the accident, Parks was her primary carer and glimpses into their relationship could be seen in clips from The R&BFeeling, an in-progress documentary by artist Nathaniel Mellors and filmmaker Marcus Werner-Hed. Opposite were hung a large selection of Parks’s paintings. They range from the abstract and phantasmagoric to a more modern brand of photorealist portraiture. Far from being evidence ofa restless mind, there was a distinct sense that the various technically accomplished, stylistic incarnations were deployed inthe service of each painting’s subject matter. It was a clear case of content dictatingform, strikingly realized in the many portraits of Parks’s mother: in muted oil paints she is captured as a sturdy matriarch in a blue dress and pearls; in lurid colours she becomes a glowing angel with oversized hands, radiating auras of neon in front of a phosphorescent cross. This polarity between an ordered kind of English domesticity and hallucinogenic epiphany, a classic dynamic of Apollonian order versus Dionysian chaos, is what charges Parks’s work.
However, the artist’s transgressive performative tendencies are not exactlyrandom acts of regression. The ululatory seizures he throws himself into as the occasionally naked, funk-flute-playing alter-ego Bignose (seen in a video loop of an appearance-cum-intervention on a 1970s American TV show), his 1970s auto-erotic experimentation and the spoken-word poetry that teeters between gauche earnestness and hysteria, are the byproducts of a careful research process. A series of diagrams and notes written across Grand Union’s windows attested to this, showing Parks’s theoretical and philosophical workings. ‘I have repositioned myself,’ he had written, ‘to be receptive to the voice of the homilies in the same spirit I received the R&B feeling […] in starlight LA.’
In 1972, Parks temporarily relocatedto South Central Los Angeles. It was therehe combined the ecstatic energies of the Starlight Church of God in Christ – an evangelical LA church founded in 1965 –with the phenomenological concerns of performance art and the visceral realism of Antonin Artaud. At the exhibition opening, Parks and his band The Recreationals played a selection of classic doo-wop, rhythm & blues and originals. During their renditionof the Ronnie Savoy ballad (1960) that shares the exhibition’s title, Parks’s intense vocal delivery let the song’s climactic delirium rip through its sentimental surface. He sang, ‘And the heavens cried, and the tears filled the stream, and the stream filled the river, and the rivers filled the sea’ – an apocalyptic vision fit for the most arresting solo exhibition I’ve seen this year.
First published in Issue 159