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White out: Mike Parr will paint over the prints in his current exhibition … but why?

Australian artist Mike Parr’s current exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney. courtesy of Anna Schwartz, CC BY-SA

White out: Mike Parr will paint over the prints in his current exhibition … but why?

At 5pm on August 29, performance artist and painter Mike Parr will “paint out” the large-scale prints in his current exhibition at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney. This extreme and anarchic act of painting over the massive artworks, in white, will be filmed and documented. It is the artist’s effort to paint away the representation in his work, with no concern for the loss of substantial sales revenue.

Mike Parr turns 70 this year. He is a major Australian artist who over the course of his career has engaged with ideas of endurance and duration, formalism and the mechanics of de-representation. In performance works dating back to the 1970s, he’s drawn blood from his arm and splashed it around gallery walls with a syringe, cut “un-words” into his legs using a scalpel and lit a burning and sparking fuse that was wound around his lower leg.

As many will know, Parr suffered an accident at birth resulting in the surgical removal of his left arm above the elbow. Perhaps his best-known work was from 1977, titled Cathartic Action: Social Gestus No. 5 [Armchop], where he attached a prosthetic arm to his left stump, filled it with meat and blood and performed a violent dismembering of the prosthesis with a tomahawk.

Cathartic Action: Social Gesture No.5 (the Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Author provided

This traumatic act (for Parr and for his shocked gallery audience) had a grounding in psychoanalytical theory, where a cut occurs once language is enacted. From that point in time, when a cut is made, a particular part of “life” is lost forever.

Parr’s violent and disturbing rites of cutting his body (using wires, knives, tomahawks etc) can be read as a forcing of language onto the material body, according to academic and author of the artist’s monograph, Professor Ed Scheer.

The artist’s alarming act, scheduled for the last day of his current exhibition, will be a construction of the reverse. The materiality of the paint will force the language out of his artworks.

By painting out his large prints in white, Parr will change his works from signifying marks into an infinity abyss. So, from something, to nothingness. The lack of colour in white creates an endless void. He is erasing the representation in the work (such as the text and formal portraiture, the marks and human figures). This will mean that he cuts off language, both text and image, as he cuts off any signifying clues.

Parr’s original Self Portrait Project, including the current massively constructed prints, began in 1981. Etchings, pencil drawings, drypoints, photographs, bronzes and performances. The portraits were distorted, elliptical, sewn, cut, emblemised and erased. They are a narrative of pain, ritual, disappearance and intellectual struggle.

Rules and Displacement Activities Part III vi. The Emetics (Primary Vomit): I am Sick of Art [Red, Yellow and Blue] Blue, 1977 Performance at Watters Gallery, Sydney Australia. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Author provided

In the 1990s, as a lowly curatorial assistant in the Department of Prints and Drawings, I remember poring over these portrait prints and drawings. They were sleeved between acid free paper, lying in wait inside the heavy black solander boxes of the sub-level Art Gallery of New South Wales collection room. The intense suffering and lack of inhibition of the drawings and drypoints surprised and unnerved me.

The current works at Anna Schwartz Gallery incorporate elements of those self-portraits. There they are distorted, distended, shrunken, blocked-out or transformed into an ancient labyrinth logo. But they will soon disappear for good.

In a private email exchange with author of The Infinity Machine, Ed Scheer, Parr says:

The “painting out” is definite now … I’ll begin at 5pm on Saturday 29th August which is the last day of the show.

I’ve decided now to paint them all out white. [My collaborators] will document the process and video the disappearance every step of the way. White is a great relief. It comes after a Manichaean struggle. The last few days have been very difficult, but I am reconciled now to a kind of “blind” necessity and I am coming out into the clear.

Scheer urged caution regarding this extreme act, by asking Parr:

We were saying the other day that the effect of the formalist impulse is totalitarian, so how is this decision to block out the works any different?

But Parr explained the works this way:

They were simply waiting in the wings, as vast, brooding authoritarian presences and it came to me then that I had to deal with the gap between their expanded presence and its involution and the ideas and the ease that we had mobilised in our conversation …

I am not destroying these works but completing them and I’m completing them as Supremacist monochromes by including the video documentation of their painting out as part of a final presentational form. What I’m doing is radically splitting them …. I actually think their “picture” will return by virtue of absence and that this finally is the only picture that matters.

So this final impassioned act, the mark of a principled and incorruptible artist, will be the last scene of the portrait show, despite the loss of substantial sales income. It is, perhaps, the final fade-out.

It will be a privilege to witness this thrilling act of painting-out. It’s a generous gesture to perform this event for a small audience and to record it for the wider public: a way for viewers to access the private and complex processes of a great creative mind.


Mike Parr, Deep North, is at the Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney, from June 27 to August 29. Details here.