Vicken Parsons – Emancipating Space
One afternoon in the mid-1990s, Vicken Parsons was painting in the room at home that served as her studio when a vast, dark shadow suddenly filled the space. The form was absolutely clear: it was an aeroplane, yet no sooner had it imprinted itself on the white walls than it vanished. Seconds later, the room was dazzlingly, startlingly empty. There was no plane, no shadow, no sound: just the blankness of the white walls and her canvas.
This moment was crucial for her. She was struck by how easily a shadow could invade a space and then disappear, leaving no trace except in memory. How could a presence be so real and substantial and then so absent, so impermanent? The many works that followed this experience focused on the creation of interiors and rooms, empty spaces which perhaps once harboured a presence. Like a camera obscura, the studio space could catch images, yet – unlike the camera – just as easily let them slip away.
A hasty viewing of Parsons’ work might suggest that she paints uninhabited spaces: empty rooms, horizons, tunnels, corners and doors. There are no people. Even if the forms seem recognisable as real spaces, there is a strange absence of the paraphernalia of human life: no objects, no litter or baggage, no residue of occupation.
Yet the experience that so intrigued Parsons complicates this: can a space ever be totally uninhabited? Doesn’t it always carry the ghost of some presence, whether this had been transitory and punctual like the plane or enduring and solid like a person? Even if we can’t see it, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there. And how can spaces carry these ghosts without depicting them, without representing them in any direct way via figure or body?
At school, Parsons loved the air and space of Renaissance painting. She loved the open, translucent colour, and the uncluttered configurations of place and figure. Later, her encounter with the Matisse of 1914 to 1917 would have a huge impact, showing her how a minimal inscription of lines could generate a maximal volume. Until now, her work had been what she describes as “contained”, yet now it became less boundaried and more concerned with the creation of openings, vistas and apertures.
Her paintings were still highly populated: faces, hands, bodies, everyday objects like chairs, kettles and books all jostled against each other. Yet comparing these works with her later painting reveals an underlying and consistent concern. Although the subject matter seems radically different – moving from human presence and the stuff of habitation to empty rooms and corners – what is central is the ability of joins and seams to create space. The elementary matrix here is no more than a triangle or junction of two diagonals with a vertical line extending from their apex. Present in the lines of a chair or the edges of an open book, it is also the basic operator in the later space paintings. This simple, powerful configuration is what makes space.
The guiding geometry here elaborated for Parsons the idea of what it meant to “be within”. What interested her, she says, was the continuity of “internal and external space”, described by Rilke as the sense that what was outside did not “break open the barriers of the body” but, on the contrary, “gathered inner and outer together into one uninterrupted space” (1). Pursuing this in her work, it is not only the distinction between inner and outer that is questioned but also that between figuration and abstraction.
Abstraction is often understood as a work of exclusion, of pushing form to empty out substance and content. But it is also linked to the notion of line. A line is a way of dividing space, and to abstract is perhaps most fundamentally to separate: the use of lines involves an abstraction, in this sense of an act of separating. Parsons shows us that lines do not simply divide space but create it in the first place: they generate expanse and volume. Just as she was once fascinated with the nervous contours of zebra stripes, she returns again and again to the question of how a minimal matrix of lines can create form. And through her exploration, she is also showing us how abstraction is always and perhaps most profoundly figuration.
When we look at the sequence of her works from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, a curious thing happens. The earlier works are what we could call two-body paintings. There is a figure or head and then another figure or presence above them, sometimes directly recognisable as another person, and sometimes as a black rain cloud or oppressive force. Whatever the content, there is always this second form poised menacingly above them.
But as the sequence continues, the two bodies get closer and closer, until all we see are two surfaces of colour joined along a line. This line can then become the ubiquitous horizon line of Parsons’ landscape painting, and the empty open spaces that are so characteristic of her work from the 90s onwards. The figures have vanished, just like the aeroplane that made itself so present in her studio only to then disappear. Her empty spaces have thus been made, quite literally, out of figures, yet these have become so close as to become emptied out. Her choice of empty chairs as a favourite motif in the late 70s now takes on another resonance: not simply as an exemplification of the geometrical matrix that produces space but as a place where someone once was.
Seeing this transformation take place in Parsons’ work is extraordinary. The rain clouds that embodied a dark, substantial presence in the earlier paintings were often focused vertically above the subject like spotlights, and these beams now become roads, vistas or milky cords. Their density becomes the airy, fluid paintwork of the interior scenes. The two bounded bodies become planes of colour that are now compacted together on meniscus-like horizon lines. Gradually, formal properties become more and more central, with the figures giving way to grey and black planes. The body is literally emptied out of the landscape, in a perpetual work of abstraction. As Parsons observes, “until then, everything had to give way to the figures, they were so dominant”. Yet now, as they metamorphosise into landscape and interiors, there is an unbuckling, a distancing of bodily intrusion: a kind of emancipation of space.
What was once the image of one figure looking down on another would become the encounter or join of two planes of colour. The overbearing cloud hovering above a figure’s head would become the meeting of earth and sky. By the late 1990s, this has settled into a dual colour field, offset at times by warm oranges and paler yellows. And the lines which carefully divide up these spaces are exactly the lines of force in the earlier work, the spotlights and vectors which had indexed the effect of one body or figure on another.
As Parsons says, this progressive process of abstraction “makes more room for the viewer”. Her painting here is about making space, a space which is less linked to colonisation than to freedom: if her interiors and landscapes are based on bodies, it is surely no accident that they so rarely end up containing human artefacts, construed as the traces of bodies. This, after all, would be to invert the process of abstraction.
Empty, uninhabited space is now revealed as an effect of, precisely, habitation. Landscape painting has always been a bit of a puzzle for art historians: it was supposed to have emerged at the time of the expansion of private land ownership, with the work commissioned to establish proprietorship and possession. The fact that such paintings actually began to appear with regularity some 80 or 90 years prior to this in the early 16th century is usually left unexplained, yet the sequence that Parsons elaborates gives us a clue. Doesn’t it show how bodies are there first, and how landscape itself is an effect of the progressive abstraction of body? Without the two figures or forces in her earlier work, would we really have the junctions of earth and sky in the later paintings?
This emptying out of the body never seems to suggest a closure of space, or its reduction to encapsulation or containment. Although the interiors are often dark and the walls depicted narrow, there are wells of light, apertures and further spaces rather than impasses and obstacles. Even when we see two dark planes that might threaten to enclose or constrict us, patches of lighter luminescent grey appear like windows, inviting us to go further. If Parsons’ geometry makes this an art of corners, the seam of each space never feels like a dead end, but creates openings and horizons. “Physical spaces”, she says, “are parallel to mental spaces”, and for every tunnel there is a window or source of light at its vanishing point.
The ambiguity of these points of convergence is that as well as embodying a destination they seem to move light towards us. The smudge or crescent of light is situated at the end of the tunnel as a point that the viewer aspires towards but it also sends luminosity towards us, as if we too were what the light aimed at. The viewer’s position is thus quietly questioned and in many of her works the light source situated at a limit point – a horizon, a corner or simply the intersection of lines – is less compressed then expansive, less out of reach than reaching towards.
There is a subtle and compelling mise en abyme at work here, as the use of screens, doors and curtains within her visual spaces embodies the picture plane itself. Even in Parsons’s early work, where the images were often densely populated with everyday artefacts, she would at times include postcards, serving this same function as a screen within the image itself. Our relation to the painting is thus reflected within the painting, drawing us in. The space we are standing in and the space of the painting become momentarily merged, and Parsons’ work acts here in many ways like sculpture, interpellating the viewer’s own position in space in relation to the picture plane. Her recent use of sculptural objects installed adjacent to the paintings extends the logic of this exploration.
Her paintings, in fact, as Iwona Blazwick writes, are just as much sculptures, never aspiring to flatness or transparency, but respecting the thickness and layering of their wooden bases (2). The plywood canvas is never disguised, and Parsons contrasts the “solidity and physical presence” of the wood with the lightness of the paint, the way in which “it is barely there”. The absence of a frame or border around the paintings accentuates this, and the tension between the base thickness of the wood and the luminosity of the paintwork evokes the viewer’s presence in space, emphasised even further by the difficulty in locating where physical masses like window frames or doors are actually connected to the surrounding space. As Parsons says, “I want to dematerialise”.
This “not thereness”, as she calls it, is both abstraction and figuration, both a transcendence of objects and an evocation of them. Her aim here, she says, is to find “a homeopathic dose of paint”, just the lightest, airiest quantity that would do what more paint could not. The delicate, filmic quality of the paintwork is echoed in the way that shapes like windows and doors seem to levitate, gently floating just above ground level. These spaces are ultimately neither interiors nor landscapes, as they are never closed, and even if there is no aperture at the end of a tunnel or at the far end of an interior, the brushwork itself leads the viewer on a path, “bringing the sky”, as Parsons says, “into the room”. The outside becomes inside.
The structure of the scene that was so important for Parsons has thus undergone a transformation. It is less a question of the invasive shadow of an aeroplane that fills the room than of the sky itself, the space that once contained it. If the room had been like a camera obscura, it is now the sky itself that becomes the interior, just as the rooms become like exterior scenes. The separation of container and contained is undone.
Both landscape and interior and both painting and sculpture, Parsons’ spaces never block the viewer out. Her darknesses are not darknesses that engulf or submerge, but that open and point beyond themselves, just as her doors so often open out onto further spaces. What matters to her is not simply to “make light the solid thing”, but equally, to “use darkness to reveal”. And just as her darknesses less obscure than enlighten, so her spaces less imprison than liberate.
(1) Rilke, ‘Duino Elegies’, Chatto and Windus, 1981, p.155.
(2) ‘Introduction’ in Vicken Parsons, ‘Your Light’, Vienna, Christine Koenig Gallery, 2005, n.p.