One of the many great things about New York Paintings, a solo show by John A. Parks at 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel, is how the show combines the New York one might want with the New York one actually has. That is, the New York that attracts tourists and ensnares ambitious young people often eludes the New Yorkers who actually live there.
For example, in Metropolitan Museum, groups of museum visitors seem to enjoy an enriching, leisurely experience as they stroll through the Petrie Sculpture Court and snap photos. As wonderful as this experience may be, it can be difficult for a New Yorker to achieve it. Just look at the guard, who hides behind a sculpture. Instead, a New Yorker’s experience, at least in most of Manhattan, is closer to the frustrating banality we see in Trader Joe’s. (I often imagine calling my memoir A Life In Laundry.) In Trader Joe’s, shoppers appear hurried, burdened, and moments away from chaos at the Chelsea branch of that grocery chain. Indeed, that store can feel like rioting at Altamont – but still more peaceable than its Union Square competitor.
And between the ideal New York and the actual New York, this show manages a uniquely blended combination. Madison Square Park (Shake Shack Line) is a good example. A mostly random lunchtime crowd lines up for burgers, acceding to a substantial inconvenience because doing so is a bold expression of preference. “Ideal” would mean facing no line, but the “Actual” line is part of the experience. It’s kind of like battling crowds at the Farmers Market (“You wouldn’t believe what i had to do to get this watercress.”), or lining up at 6am for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park. Of this mixed experience, what one wants versus what one has, John A. Parks seems to relish both sides of the equation – a bit like his willingly delayed subjects.
Maybe it’s that ambivalence that opens up his panoramic richness. Without judging the scenes he depicts, Parks avoids leaning into a “mood” and instead keeps his palette at a keenly-aware full spectrum. Bright daylight suffuses his crowded scenes and unifies individuals on autonomous and exclusive trajectories. Pictorially, there isn’t much more to really bring them together. Compositions are loosened enough to almost defy gravity, scale seems unpredictable, and perspective does little more than establish a surveying eye level. Which is great. By untethering himself from these restraints, Parks is free to play with brilliant color and eccentrically rendered forms, like the leaning and wobbly Madison Square Park office buildings bowing around Shake Shack.
The notable exception to these lively observations of Manhattan is Stock Exchange, which makes a literal dramatization of the otherwise invisibly indiscriminate destruction of day trading. Parks imagines day trading as a doughier Rape of the Sabine Women comprising mostly men. The brawl is funny, but what’s more interesting is the phalanx of terminal towers that preside over the violence. They seem indifferent, even as one seems to fall over, as if they are part of a network that plays a longer game than today’s thrilling 6.5 hours of trading.