For his opening night action, Parr had imagined “draining the body of blood.” On the night, a sufficient quantity of blood was extracted to enable a generous amount of material for painting, also enough that Parr would feel on the verge of fainting. In such a moment, rational and ego-driven functions of the human animal are overridden by the basic mechanical forces of the body.
For many artists, this is a treasured reservoir of authentic expression.
Other works in the exhibition testify to Parr’s relentless search for this authentic form. In video and photography, we see him approach extreme states again and again but always with a careful eye to the frame and to the art historical context in which he is working.
Parr is acutely aware of the work of his fellow travelers in experimental art around the world, including Pollock’s. Parr’s oeuvre, with its robust engagement in image-making that is nothing short of transformational, now sits alongside it, literally as well as figuratively. Parr’s photographs have changed the way we think about forms such as etching by unleashing the force of their creation on the viewer.
A retrospective at the national institution for art is a significant milestone for any artist, but – just as with Blue Poles – Australians have always had a love/hate relationship with Parr’s performance work over his 45-year career. His prints, sculptures, and photographs are in all the major Australian collections and, increasingly, in international groups such as the Tate Modern.
It was the 1960s, and Mike Parr was in his early twenties when he started making art. He typed words on paper, making intricate visual patterns corresponding to the meaning of the words. Working on a typewriter was a significant challenge for the artist, who had only one arm.
Parr eventually focussed on written instructions for actions, and he began to perform his teachings in the Inhibodress independent Gallery that he co-founded in Sydney in 1971. The media got hold of these radical experiments, and Parr quickly established a reputation as an uncompromising maverick.
Throughout the 1970s, he developed an increasingly sophisticated approach to his art in Australia and internationally as the first wave of performance art broke across the international art scene.
National Gallery of Victoria
Major art institutions, more used to acquiring and accessioning objects, have not yet embraced performance art – the core part of Parr’s practice. So, it is especially important that the Gallery chose to mark the career of Australia’s most significant experimental artist with an opening night performance.
In the video version of Jackson Pollock, the Female Parr remains still and silent. It appears both respectful and suggestive of a visual joke on the mania of the “action painting” method. He presents a cross-gender presence, heavily made up and wearing a white dress.
This is also the opposite of the macho figure of Pollock, celebrated as the first art media star of the late 20th century. It’s the repressed other side of this media fantasy of the male artist.
Part homage and part sabotage, Mike Parr’s reimagining of Pollock was a sensational start to his exhibition Mike Parr Foreign Looking and, as radical a gesture as it was probing and critical. In this, it is representative of Parr’s work more generally, as the exhibition demonstrates.
A self-consciously scabrous creation, Jackson Pollock’s The Female offers a new way to look at Australia’s most famous art acquisition. In so doing, it shows an Australian artist drawing from the centers of world culture to make an image uniquely his own.