Painting in black and white would seem to be an exercise in under-exploitation. With the vast rainbow of colors available to modern painters, why would anyone want to limit one’s palette to scales of ink? Especially given that drawings can be rendered on immense surfaces, paper or otherwise, why paint black against white (or vice versa) when you can draw it with similar ambition? Because you can’t draw with paint, you can only paint with it. A painting may be rife with the signs and sensations of drawn forms, but the quality of drawing and the quality of painting are both unique to each medium and experientially distinct, very distinct, from one another.
Santiago Parra could draw what he paints, but it wouldn’t be the same. The gestures would be more fluid, more brittle, more planar, the structure taking on the quality of armature and of sign. That’s not what Parra is looking for. He seeks a weighty, powerful presence, a texture and even heft that bespeaks a resistant medium.
Parra talks about his painting as “automatic writing,” admitting to the influence of Surrealism and its engagement with subconsciously driven impulse. Especially in the early days of the movement, the Surrealists, artists and writers both, sought to conjure some sort of visual, or visualized, language, some sort of atavistic mark-making from behind cognition – a new language, perhaps, or a current of communication that elides language altogether. Miró or Breton, Masson or Desnos, the Freudian avant-garde of the 1920s wanted to delve deeply into that hominid part of us that doesn’t speak or write but yearns to. This search was indeed fundamental to Surrealist practice, enduring throughout the movement’s entire arc (even after World War II, when it fed into the Lettrist movement and, ultimately, Situationism).
In the postwar years many artists investigated the peculiarities of black-and-white gestural painting, most briefly and experimentally but some focusing on the approach. Parra’s work is compared constantly to these predecessors – understandably, but inaccurately, or at least superficially. The carefully composed black-on-white paintings of Franz Kline and Pierre Soulages may or may not be sourced in Surrealist automatism, but they quite consciously do not maintain any aura of spontaneity. Their approach is architectonic; Parra’s is theatrical. The black-and-white work of Japanese Gutai painter Kazuo Shiraga comes closer materially to Parra’s painting, built up as it is of so many broad strokes produced with methods that engage remote aspects of the artist’s body. But painting with arms and feet and torso makes a choreography of the act of painting, engaging the mark haptically rather than epistemologically. Even as Parra “discovers” his images through automatic marking, he does so through very different means, and toward very different ends, than Shiraga’s.
If we can regard black-on-white gestural painting as a kind of abstract sub-genre, we see that Parra wants to bring that gesture back to what he considers its most pronounced and vital origins in automatic writing. He may admire the work of Soulages, Kline, and Shiraga, but does not relate to, much less emulate, their methods or meanings. Arguably, Parra’s art has more in common with abstract calligraphy, such as in modern Sumi-e painting or even that of Middle Eastern painters who improvise on Arabic script. But the commonality here is limited as well: these models are based in formalized language and/or formalized artistic practice, and Parra’s explicit intention is to transcend conscious formation and allow the unvoiced and unmarked to emerge from behind the myriad platforms of social intercourse.
If Parra allows his subconscious to dictate the forms his black pigment takes on its white ground, do the resulting paintings convey such a sense of the accidental or even of the pre-conscious? There is a gracefulness, even poise, to these expansive compositions that could make us question their automatism. But the explosivity that comes to the fore or lurks just behind these twisting and leaping marks does not feel staged; and, indeed, the marks themselves never fully give up their implications of the inchoate, driven as they seem to be by some sort of anthropomorphized electricity. Parra is not looking to “express” himself, he is looking to open up what can’t be expressed and let that energy drive him.
The dynamics of Santiago Parra’s art complete when beheld by its audience. The force of Parra’s aesthetics and the persuasive reasoning – or, perhaps, avoidance of reasoning – that locates his method in the mysteries of his own consciousness invoke the viewer’s own unmodulated response. The scale of the paintings gives them a theatrical cast, to be sure, but also makes them seem – feel – as natural as the weather. Parra seeks to capture raw experience with them, knowing full well that “raw experience” is defined by, among other things, its uncapturability. But all art is approximate, and Parra’s less so than most. “Art” may be a cultural construct, but on that construct Parra constructs his own ur-cultural experience.