Steven Parrino’s death dramatically fit his life. The artist was leaving a New Year’s Eve party in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in the early-morning hours of January 1, 2005, when his motorcycle hit an icy patch of road and skidded out. Rushed to Bellevue Hospital, he was pronounced dead at 2:25 a.m. But, for all of the 46-year-old artist’s rock-and-roll lifestyle trappings, the crash was not the result of a careless night of partying: friends said Parrino wasn’t much of a drinker, and police said there was no alcohol involved in the accident. “He didn’t like crowds or parties,” his friend, writer and curator Bob Nickas told the New York Post, “He was a little bit of a loner. I was very surprised to hear that he was even out.”
The bike he was riding was relatively new to Parrino, a purchase made after a string of painting sales—somewhat of a rarity during his lifetime. Though he was widely admired and respected among artists, often hosting them at his garage-like studio on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the American art market largely ignored his work and his New York gallerist was only able to sell two paintings for a total of $19,000 in eight years of representing Parrino. But Parrino was un-phased by the lack of commercial interest in his work. He despised the mechanisms of the art market and sought to separate himself from its demands as much as possible.
It was his friendships with European artists, starting with kindred spirit Olivier Mosset, that led him to show extensively in Europe, where his work was exponentially more warmly received than in the U.S. He exhibited frequently in France, but it was in Switzerland that Parrino truly found a second home. At the time of his death, Parrino had been planning a major exhibition at MAMCO in Geneva; over the preceding decades, he had shown his work at Circuit, FriArt, CAN Neuchâtel, Art & Public, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Musee des Beaux Arts La Chaux-de-Fonds, Villa du Park Geneva, Bob Van Orsouw, Furkapasshohe, and Galerie Pierre Huber. It would be no stretch to suggest that no other country felt Parrino’s loss more acutely.
Switzerland was where Parrino was given the space to fully actualize his conceptual project. In a fax to Marc-Olivier Wahler, then curator of Centre d’Art Neuchâtel, in advance of his solo show at the institution, Parrino noted, “This will be one of my BEST shows”. In Switzerland, Parrino was able to escape the dizzying market-obsessed confines of New York and produce exhibitions that reflected his antipathy for traditional notions of artistic legacy and success: “Nothing needs to be protected. Don’t worry about damaging anything. (Damage is good.) Nothing will be for sale. All will be thrown out after the show. Nothing has value.”
Notwithstanding this disdain for the formalized, business-focused art world, Parrino highly valued culture and thought that it was not only a reflection of the world, but helped to shape it. He deeply respected the work of Warhol (going so far as to call himself a “Bastard Kid of Drella”), Stella, Pollock, Newman, and Judd. But despite of his deep engagement with art history, particularly abstraction, minimalism, and Greenbergian theory, Parrino didn’t consider his work theoretical. Referential, perhaps, but never theoretical. He found theory to be little more than fashion, and took care to separate it from his practice. His paintings were real objects in the real world, and he wanted them to be understood as such. The works were meant to invoke a pure physicality, to exist in space. In his own words, Parrino summarized that his “work does not function as an illustration for an idea. The painting is not a picture, not a representation of something, but a concrete fact. Art must exist on a human level and deal with, experience on that level.” Yet his paintings were never fully abstract, and always maintained a connection to culture, both high and low, through clever titling or text. Parrino also understood his art to be manneristic, to be part of a reified artistic trajectory: at the end of a phase of Abstract Expressionism where painting had been declared dead. Speaking with Wahler in April 1998, he said:
“When I wound up in art school … the word on painting was that painting is dead … It was like a Doctor Frankenstein mentality. Working with corpses, you know. Necrophilia, where you’re fucking a corpse. You know, fucking this dead painting. I just basically took a monochrome, which I saw as the ultimate painting, the most pure form of painting … and pumped it up. It’s as easy as that … I just wanted to take something that was pure and perfect and fuck it up. So, I pulled it off the stretcher. I would restaple it so it had folds in it. I would slash it with knives…”
For Parrino, the point was not to react against something, it was simply to take that thing—dead painting—and go further with it, by any means necessary. In The No Texts (2003, JPR Ringier) he wrote, “The thing I did was basically to bring total chaos to total control… I painted a pure painting and then I destroyed it.” There was violence in it, but an unglorified violence. He saw the artist as a mirror to the chaos of contemporary society and hoped his destruction of the canvas would reflect his dissatisfaction with the institutionalized and industrialized violence of the modern world. As he told Wahler, “I’m questioning society also by reflecting society back at itself. It’s reflection isn’t pretty most of the time.” But he understood his own limits: “if an artist is a mirror and your job is to reflect whatever comes in, that reflection is going to be tainted by a filter of some sort and is going to be changed because of the mirror. The mirror isn’t a true mirror.”
If one is to attempt to reveal the bias of Parrino’s mirror, his drawings are where we’re given the best opportunity for insight—it’s in the drawings where you see the artist’s mind at work. Traced images, cut-outs, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth-style characters, comic books, clippings from the New York Post, Russ Meyer starlets, pin-up girls, pages from biker magazines, punk records, and B-movies all populate Parrino’s works on paper. They reflect Parrino’s multi-faceted approach to culture and his desire to eliminate the divide between the ‘high’ and the ‘low.’ In these works, Parrino incessantly combines punk, pop, Minimalism, the monochrome, high art, and low culture. Working with notoriously non-archival materials—pencil, enamel, spray paint, vellum—he incorporated intentionally provocative symbols such as abstract swastikas, Confederate flags, and Hells Angels insignia. In The No Texts, he describes the ultimate aim of this kaleidoscopic mentality: “The jump cut, short attention span that most of “educated society” sees as bad becomes a new kind of language, a language of MEDIA MUSH, where everything is equal, no matter how disjunct. The uninitiated can only complain, while those in the know surf on the clashing waves of confusion.”
As Nickas described him, “Steven had a very sharp, no-nonsense mind. He always knew what he thought of something, always knew what he was going to do, how an idea should be executed. He had not a hint of indecision” (Artforum, March 2005).
For Parrino, there was never confusion; he was always ‘in the know.’ The work he left behind was a fully realized reflection of his life, in all its interests, ideas, and desires:
“I want to be profoundly touched by art, by life. I came to painting at the time of its death, not to breathe its last breath, but to caress its lifelessness. The necromancy of the pietà. Pollock's One, timed with the birth of a synthetic star, 1958 BLACK PAINTINGS, DEATH & DISASTERS, modernism at its most powerful, before the point where circuses began. / The dust clears (just barely), and I stand in my own graveyard. I hear the constant din of BLACK NOISE.”
Little Anal Annie seeks to honor Parrino’s legacy in Switzerland and the cross-Atlantic collaborations he enjoyed with so many Swiss artists and curators. Organised by Greg Bergner and Marc Jancou, this exhibition brings together nearly forty paintings, drawings, and collages, demonstrating the depth and scope of Parrino’s vast artistic output. Exhibited in the mountain village of Rossinière, just outside of Gstaad, Little Anal Annie will be on view by appointment from August 10th through September 15th. For further information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.