When he was in grade school, Erik Parker entertained his juvenile fan base with drawings that mimicked the ones in Mad magazine. He had a gift, one that didn't inspire the word prodigy, but a talent that he finally exploited after dropping out of a San Antonio high school.
Eventually, he made it into college and spent some turbulent years in academia, then decamped for New York City. Through years of fast living, the deviant art of his youth stayed with him, and at his first U.S. museum show, which opened Sunday at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, shades of Rat Fink, Mad magazine cartoons, psychedelic album covers and black-light poster art shone through.
Some arts writers have aligned Parker with such art-world notables as Philip Guston and Carroll Dunham, but associations with the underground art styles are more to Parker's liking. "I like the punch of subcultures," he says.
His portraits roil with bug-eyed creatures that snarl and writhe in agony while text strips encircle their tormented bodies. Often the title of the work will appear emblazoned across the canvas front as if it were an album cover. He uses the edges of his canvas like liner notes, inscribing the narrow bands with a chronology of words as the painting progresses -- "Run Mice, Nose Bleed, Lost?, Drama, New Dealer Blues."
His hues are as intense as a Hawaiian sunset.
As he mixes his paints, he gives the colors names -- musicians he likes, or snippets of phrases he hears on National Public Radio. Then he saves the chroma-rich concoctions in plastic refrigerator containers.
Recently, he dropped the text from his work and turned from tortured figures to still-life painting. He says '60s pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann made still lifes, so why not he? The flowers and fruit have the same intense vibrato as his portraits, but lack the compelling biographical record.
Parker is 42 and moving into a time period that will mark his mature work. The angst recorded in his early pieces seems unnecessary now. He has quelled personal demons through sobriety and a frantic output of work that kept him breathless. He said it was time to find a new gear, one that doesn't personally drain him.
The results are as pleasing as the earlier work; although they don't bear the obvious references to underground art styles of the past, they are fiercely cool.