Words like Totally, Suckey, Beach Bunnie, and Surf God represent the muse behind Aaron Parazette’s recent Minimalist compositions in high-keyed color variations.
The California native chose these words based on his personal knowledge of surfer slang. Beyond that, the exhibition focuses on the formalist beauty of sans serif letters and color (each painting represents one word or phrase) rather than the anti-establishment culture of surfing. The result includes a cool collection of twelve acrylic on canvas paintings, seven pigment prints, and a wall painting made by the artist for this exhibition.
In his early forties, Parazette is among a new breed of contemporary artists such as Peter Halley, Sarah Morris, and Julian Opie, whose pure color palettes and vector shapes find the computer a natural source for roughing out their design ideas. In this case, Parazette enlisted the help of his computer-savvy wife and artist, Sharon Engelstein, to collaborate on the initial designs of his compositions. Together they rearranged the letters depicted in his paintings (all done with the Macintosh computer font, Helvetica) using programs such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. This stage of the process treats each word as an all-over composition, and not necessarily readable. For example, in Green Room, the "G," "m," and "r" are flipped and stretched until their lime green, acid yellow, and white letters fill a rectangular background of cherry red. After designing the layout and selecting colors on the computer, Parazette applies acrylic paint to the canvas using the time-consuming process of taping off areas in order to give his colors the Hard Edge effect made popular in the “60s by such art notables as Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, and Ellsworth Kelly. Fans of supergraphics (stylized graphic design associated with snow boards, skate boards, and, of course, surf boards) will admire his impeccably drawn "pin lines" that outline each word. This subtle detailing remains essential for Parazette, who sees it as part of a finish fetish he shares with supergraphic designers.
Parazette’s combination of curves and straight lines, painted in a similar weight, recall Minimalist strategies of Frank Stella. For example, Axed, a striking color combination of black, orange, and hot pink forms outlined in a thin line of contrasting color, displays the combination of bisecting angles, lines, and curves made famous in Stella’s Protractor Series from the 1970s. The comparison does not stop there. Stella displayed a post-modern style of painting through his Hard Edge paint application (erasing the brush stroke) and his sampling of a symbol of the post-industrial era, the protractor — a tool for the designer or engineer. Similarly, Parazette’s superclean painting style and sampling of an electronic font addresses painting with a similar post-modern sensibility. However, this tactic runs the risk of becoming more retrograde than interesting. The rich discourse from the past forty years concerning language, text, signifier, signified, has changed the way we look at words and word paintings. In the catalog interview with Lynn Herbert, Parazette discusses the role of text in his work as a fairly neutral container that best "serves the formal needs of the painting." Yet, he often refers to surfer lingo as significant for him personally and symbolic of a "smart ass" attitude. This leaves the viewer confused as to his motives for selecting this loaded lingo with which to make "good painting."
And these are good paintings, stunning paintings. But some viewers may feel disappointed after they decipher the letters, debunking this Minimalist master as surfer dude. Perhaps the artist summed it best for those at the opening who seemed perplexed by his elegant depiction of slang. Parazette was asked what he was trying to get at with this new work. Rather than bring up art theory or even take offense, the soft-spoken artist smiled and said, "I’m trying to get to the yeah."
Images courtesy the artist and the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.
Allison Hunter is an artist, writer, and web designer in Houston, Texas.