17 Megan Parry


Born Hornell, New York, 1944 Lives in Detroit and Alfred, New York

The paintings of Megan Parry are obsessed with looking. In her wry and varied visual universe, cartoonish, bald-headed figures peer at the viewer, at one another, or at obscure objects of interest that only they can see. Huge, lidless eyeballs (intimations of vast, inscrutable beings that the canvas cannot contain) hover in close-up and stare with a deranged intensity (as in Aspetto, 2008–2010), or else a kind of cosmic serenity. When Parry paints houses, their windows are often eyes: personifying, face-making. Even her multitudinous coffins and “enclosures,” isolated details of an architecture of confinement, have eyes, have windows—or if they don’t, they insistently don’t, inviting the viewer to wonder what is being kept in (or out) behind their solid walls.

Inside/outside; looking, watching; windows; the architecture of the domestic: Parry has used the master bedroom of her Lafayette Park town house as her Detroit studio for more than twenty years, and it is tempting to associate her work with that singular neighborhood of glass houses and voyeurs. Tempting, too, to see her oscillation between limpid, rectilinear precision, on one hand, and subtle, organic texturing and layering, on the other, as a reflection of that same duality in Lafayette Park’s minimalist buildings and abundant landscape. But the analogy only goes so far. Other than, perhaps, “painter” and “postmodern,” any attempt to draw a box around Parry, who grew up in Philadelphia and who has lived and worked in Colorado, New York, England, and France, is futile. Her work is too expansive, too multivalent. What to make, for instance, of its humor, whimsy, and menace? Of its deep connection to comics and film? Of her enthusiasm for atypical canvas shapes, collage-like collisions of texture and image, and for filigree, astronomy, and careful, painterly imitation of that cracking, veining tendency of antique glaze known as “crazing” (which looks, she notes with interest, conspicuously like a road map when seen up close)?

For much of her career, Parry was active as an architectural stencil artist and muralist, and her commercial work can be seen in Detroit in various wards of three hospitals: Children’s, Henry Ford, and Receiving. Her works for young people, including nineteen large paintings made in 2014 for the examining rooms at Children’s, brim with an ecumenical assortment of warm cartoon imagery and text, providing their viewers with, as the artist aptly puts it, “a wide range of entertainments.” (See, for example, #15).

Parry’s natural tendency is, emphatically, toward diversity, and that inclination is nowhere more evident than in her ongoing coffin series. In 2010, she returned to an image from Purple Coffin, a 1986 painting of a precise arrangement of purple brick in the shape of a hexagon/coffin, its contours echoed by pulsating, concentric lines. Since then, she has made more than one hundred related works, usually small, on paper, and consisting of three corresponding casket shapes that float together in negative space. This project began, she says, as a spoof: “a catalog for potential purchasers” that “wandered off into. . . unexpected byways.” In these pieces, which mark a significant reduction and standardization of her otherwise capacious and nuanced sense of space, many of Parry’s disparate visual languages are unified, encyclopedically, and the full force of her fertile imagination is on display. These are coffins as houses, prisons, figures, and faces; as compadres, robots, and star fields; as piles of stone and abstract shapes—coffins as miniature canvases. If they are about death, they are about death as both tragedy and comedy. As creative opportunity. As a field of infinite variety.

Matthew Piper, March 2015

Copyright Essay’d 2015