MICHAEL PARKES "MASTER OF MAGICAL REALISM"
Michael, you were born in the State of Missouri, studied at the University of Kansas, and taught drawing, printmaking, and art history for four years. What motivated you and your wife, at the age of 26, to change everything and go to Europe and then to Asia?
I had always had two loves in my life…art and philosophy. After graduate school and some after some time of teaching art, I realized that although I had certain technical skills, I had neither the ideas nor the motivation to continue as an artist. So the obvious decision was to pursue my second love, philosophy, (particularly Eastern philosophy). My great fortune was that I met a girl that shared not only my love of these two subjects, but had the courage to drop everything and pursue our journey of discovery in philosophy wherever that would take us. So, for the next four years we traveled and studied. In our youthful naiveté and enthusiasm, we wanted to try to find, not only the source of the great religions, but the source of everything! Unfortunately reality brought us back to earth when money ran out or illness intervened and ultimately we returned to Europe for a break.
I know that you live in a magical village on the Mediterranean Sea in Spain. What made you decide to settle indefinitely in Spain in 1974?
We were in India when our daughter was born 1974 and the need for some stability in our lives brought us back to Europe to a village in Spain where we had visited a couple of years before. Spain was under the dictatorship of Franco at that time but it had two advantages, inexpensive living and sun most of the year. In later years, when I eventually started to paint again, I realized that we had a third reason. We had chosen a place with the most wonderful yellow light for any artist to work.
When did you start painting again?
Maria and I tried numerous jobs to make a living in Spain until a fortuitous coincidence brought me back to painting. Within a short period of time, I met a Spanish painter who helped me begin to think about painting and a gallery owner who was interested in having some paintings for his new gallery. The two things together, plus the fact we were perpetually out of money, helped me to decide to give painting a second try. This was when I realized that our time of study and travel had given me the basis for a new way of looking at creating art. I began to try to visually translate the philosophical explorations of previous years. Also I started experimenting with stone lithography at this time.
Considering your rapid international recognition and success from that point and which continues through the writing of this interview (35 years later) what would you attribute to this great success?
My success was anything but rapid! There were many years of painting from one small exhibition to the next, trying to understand and to define how I could translate abstract, philosophical concepts into visual reality. There were many disasters in those early years that are best not to see the light of day! Slowly, by 1980, I began to feel a bit more comfortable in handling these broad esoteric concepts in visual form. And when that happened, it seems that I began to gain an audience.
Why have you succeeded where so many have failed?
The study of philosophy in its broadest terms should go to the core of our existence and ask those fundamental questions that are the basis of every religion. Because my studies continue to this day (and I continue to ask those core questions), it is the basis for my art work. So to simply say, it is the content behind the paintings that give them value, not the technique, as there are many artists that have the highest of technical skills but may have little to say. Ultimately, my view of art is that I am story teller and the story is a vast and deep landscape of an interior world that we all share…no easy challenge.
Because of the complexity in space and time of the many historical influences which you have been able to fuse in your work with such an amazing naturalness, you truly have an individual style that is uniquely your own. Your landscapes cannot be pinned down to a geographical location, your figures cannot be placed in any period of art history. Can you explain a bit more about that?
What you have described is very intentional. The costuming, the landscapes and even the figures themselves are designed to create a kind of limbo where the viewer has to ask, ‘Where am I?’ Even though there are certain historical references in my images, the symbols are intermixed from different time periods to produce a collective effect or dream state. Because I want the figures in my work to represent a certain energy, or state of consciousness, I do not use live models.
Yet your art gives us a feeling of identification with contemporary reality. What is unusual is that the images and figures are from another world, whose interpretation is left up to us. How can your work feel so contemporary when you are dealing with subjects from the distant past.
The one thing that I have realized is that if I am truly connecting with archetypal symbols in my work, they apply to everyone and everyone responds on some level. Of course, to get the balance of the symbols right each time is virtually impossible. So the exciting thing about making art is the constant challenge of creating a window through which the viewer feels comfortable enough to step this unknown space. And once you are in that space, there is the strange sensation that you have been there before or there is some personal connection.
It is tempting to speak of a dream world with you, if it were not for the fact that your dream world surpasses all our dreams in audacity, freedom and insistency. The visible reality is there but it is not the familiar reality we know. How would you refer to your world?
The big misunderstanding is the idea that our collective dream world is an illusion. It may be our strongest reality. The confusion is that the many symbols that we identify with come from different states of consciousness and therefore are somewhat difficult to decipher. My sole intention in my images is to try to find a sequence, or combinations of symbols, that invite the viewer into a space that seems foreign and at the same time, strangely comfortable. Because that space, in reality, is their own.