Genesis 11:1-9 contains the mythical story of the city of Babel and the fate of its people. The world had a single common language that enabled man to devise great projects, each surpassing the former in their sophistication and wonder. However, this unity aroused a parochial blind spot: a hubristic desire to construct a tower so tall it could reach Heaven. God, struck by the arrogance of man’s ambitions, scattered them across the world and imparted different tongues onto them. Where there was once cohesion and understanding there was now only babel, an inherent inability to understand a neighbor’s speech. The Tower of Babel represents the tragic telos of man’s creative ambition; that soaring towers of magnanimous proportions do not culminate at the precipice of Paradise, but in scattered confusion.
Joey Parlett’s work can be interpreted as manifestations of antithetical themes present in the Babel narrative; construction to overwhelming and superfluous excess and, oppositely, deconstruction to monistic absurdity. His work Brutalist Babel (2016) renders the Babel myth in the likeness of 20th century Brutalist architecture. Different buildings and structural elements, collected from found books and materials, are layered over one another in an impossible amalgam of rigid, geometric facades. The work can be seen as an encapsulation of the spirit and process of his practice in general. Working primarily from found images ranging from public domain photographs of NASA projects to Renaissance paintings, Parlett combs through his collection of images, navigating through different avenues of inquiry by rendering an aspect of the image in pen and ink; either adding to an inherent idea found in them, or by a phenomenological bracketing, isolating one element from the context of the images’ totality for the purposes of comparison or juxtaposition.
His latest ongoing series, In The Desert, deconstructs Giovanni Bellini’s famous painting, St. Francis in the Desert, through works that center on objects within the painting. Bellini’s work is known for the minute narrative details in the painting’s landscape. Each object is carefully placed and considered with respect to Biblical and Franciscan literature. The scene is washed in a warm radiant light facing St. Francis, arms outstretched, beholding the Divine. Not only is the work a formal masterpiece, readily apparent aesthetically, but it is also immediately intelligible symbolically with the help of a small amount of background information. By deconstructing the painting through its individual elements, Parlett also deconstructs it’s symbolic order.
The work In The Desert (2015) is Parlett’s first work in the series, giving the series it’s name. Having been familiar with the importance of the landscape in Bellini’s work, Parlett chose the landscape itself, the first plane behind St. Francis, as an object to be considered. Removing several elements, the desk and fence in the lower right, St. Francis himself, and the farther two planes in the top left, revealed a curious and serendipitous rabbit hole directly in the middle of scene, where in Bellini’s work, St. Francis’ hand, bearing the marks of the crucified, points to. From here, his curiosity was piqued, galvanizing him to move into different parts of the work.
Comparing his work to a web page, Parlett describes the process of moving through and investigating an image as similar to clicking through hyperlinks. A main page, the original work by Bellini, contains a finite set of objects, each with an implied meaning within the work. What would it be like to “click” on one of these objects, a rock or a desk,
and be brought to a more detailed page pertaining to it? Waterfall Mountain (2017) elucidates this idea most clearly through an arrangement of different representations of water, including the one in Bellini’s work, arranged into the shape of a mountain. Similar to Pippin Barr’s v r 3, a VR museum containing different digital representations of water, the viewer is invited to contemplate a variety of approaches to drawing water, a substance that is notoriously difficult to replicate. However, by arranging the water samples into a mountain, Parlett once again invokes a Babel theme that points towards the absurdity of the project; to represent a substance that is inherently dynamic, chaotic, and unstable in a flat, static, and graphical way. Thus by “clicking” on the water, what is revealed is not an essential insight, like what one would expect to find by being directed to a new web page from a link in another, but an essential absurdity; by bracketing water off from the rest of the image, it looses the contextual meaning it has in Bellini’s work, reducing it to a series of marks on a page.
Parlett often stretches the link between the smallest element of an image and it’s meaning. Given that Parlett’s work derives from photographs or realist paintings and imagery, in the case of Bellini, one can draw a metaphorical link to Roland Barthes’ photographic theory. To Barthes, photographs have two key elements active within their symbolic frame work; a photograph’s punctum, the small or simple detail of a photograph that gives us a personal impression, and its studium, or more general meaning within culture as a whole. Parlett’s work treats the objects in question like punctums, small elements that give us a unique impression that’s not quite comprehensible, isolated like in Waterfall, and compares these to the studium that the object has within the original work. The result is a discursive ambiguity, an impression that is definite but ambiguous. We know that the collages are water, but we are simultaneously aware that it is merely a representation of water, lacking the Biblical meanings in the original work.
Unlike most photographs, a drawing can be reduced to a basic level as a series of marks or textural information. The stroke of Parlett’s pen is laid in the open, free for the eye to see. As the viewer steps back from his work, the image becomes more clear at the expense of the strokes’ visibility. This is realized most fully once the image is digitized, where, due to screens that compress the work into smaller sizes, the images become the most “real” looking versions of themselves. By bracketing objects within images, honing in on the small details, punctums, or representations, Parlett doubles the metaphorical link between distance and clarity. Not only is there a relationship between physical distance from the work and its actual visibility or clarity, but there is an analogous link between the singularity (the degree, or distance, Parlett has traveled down the road of representation from the original image) or isolation of the image the work is derived from, and the increasing incoherence as a studium.
Ultimately Parlett’s work grapples with the dialectical relationship between the process of making and the act of representing. Parlett’s idea of the final work is never fully known beforehand. He collects images and sieves through them, contemplatively searching for something that catches his eye. After getting a hunch, he moves on to reproducing the feeling of that hunch, drawing out the implicit within the explicit images. Perhaps, this is why Parlett so often depicts caves as well as towers; close quarters and unimaginable constructions; both resonate with the process of moving through information, collecting it, and trying to make something out of it all. The cramped, technologically absurdist scenes Cupola (2016) and Tunnel (2015) bristle with nervous minute details, wires and buttons covering every surface. The scattering anxiety one feels by looking through these images mirrors the same energy expelled by the artist in looking for an image to begin working with. Each button in the scene, each wire, beckons a curious question. What exactly is all this for? In the words of Heidegger, “questioning leads a way,” but to where? In the back of the rooms, at the focal point of each work, stand two blank windows, staring back at us in relief from the swarming surfaces around them. Like in Mystery Cave (2015) and Library (2016), these hypnotic blank spaces are sheer impossibility; representative of the horizon, the limit, of the possibility or articulation, definition, and representation in general. They are precisely the opposite of Sugimoto’s theater scenes; pure white rectangles that represent, and as photographic exposures, literally are, the totality of the information (i.e. light) displayed on them. Beyond the mass of information in our increasingly technological, information hungry society, what is there? Technology begets technology; representation begets representation; information begets information. We move forward without knowing why, knowing nothing else but the continual construction of the Colossus. When they appear, we are drawn to these soothing gaps in representation. Yet, perhaps, walking up to them, curling a hand around the door frame beholding the light, we are suddenly struck by the unknown; where are we going?
For more information on Joey’s work, please visit his website.