On the wall of his studio in Blackheath, South London, Ti Parks had pinned some words by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989).
“Don’t ask me for any meaning in the thing; it just is what it is.”
This rejection of the simplistic question “what’s it about?” was as important to Parks as it was to that great Irish writer of life as a tragi-comedy.
Like Beckett, Parks relished the humour, often dark, that accompanies the banality and bathos of the everyday.
Another influence was the German dada artist Kurt Schwitters; Parks, who coined the term “performontage” to describe his performances with objects, participated in the Kurt Schwitters Merz Night held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2002. Merz, a nonsense word invented by Schwitters to describe the pre-war artist’s collage and assemblage works based on scavenged scrap materials, chimed strongly with elements of Parks practice.
A collagist, printmaker, painter, sculptor, installationist, performance artist and creator of artists’ books, Ti Parks was above all else an experimental artist.
He revelled in serendipity, the chance encounters with objects and ideas that could fire the imagination and launch a new art project. The juxtaposition of the disparate was a central theme in Parks’ work. He liked to disorientate and discombobulate the spectator, to make works, as the late curator and art critic Jennifer Phipps observed “which resemble the ordinary chaos of the world.”
His friend and colleague, the Italo-Australian artist and curator Domenico de Clario described him as a jester, someone “at ease with asking impossible questions”.
Many of those “questions” had to do with what he termed his obsessions; materials and textures, imagery and ways of seeing; a loose list would include mohair and wool, fur, fetish, erotica, female images, garments, serendipity, improvisation, wit, irony, satire, parody and self-parody.
The collages in this exhibition reveal these preoccupations to the full, as does their genesis, a vast cache of identical postcards, printers’ rejects, discovered in a South London charity shop in the early 1980s. They were of Venice’s famed San Marco horses, over 10,000 of them, originally destined for the British Museum.
Parks decided to collage onto them and they became the 10,000 Collages project. By the end of his life he had completed, numbered and signed more than 8000. But although he plucked a large number out of the air to give shape to the project, the actual number wasn’t important. It was the repetition, the variation within multiplicity, that spurred him forward.
Parks’ creation of artist’s books is also linked to his interest in collage and he became very influential in that genre. These objects, hand stitched using Japanese methods, encompass random finds.
His Road Print Series is perhaps the best known of this genre and going for a walk with Parks was a potentially unnerving experience; he would often dart into the thoroughfare to retrieve a scrap of paper that had a footprint imprinted on it, or the tread marks of a car tyre. He also relished retrieving and incorporating anonymous lists and notes that had become separated from their original owners and function.
Not all books allow such hints at narrative; among his creations are the un-books, those that are folded and stitched in such a way as to be unopenable.
Uncoupling, recoupling, deconstructing and reconstructing are at the heart of Parks’ work, the link between form and function playfully, unnervingly severed.
These ideas come through more subtly in his paintings, but painting was also central to his practice whether alone or combined with collage and
applying pigment to a surface was as important as the shapes and colours of his abstract explorations. He started to explore some of these ideas at art school in England but they came to fruition on the other side of the world.
Parks was born in 1939 and studied painting and printmaking at Bromley College of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art between 1956 and ’63.
After a short time in London, during which he exhibited with the Young Contemporaries and the London Group, he left for Australia; the move was a long-held ambition and the decade he spent there was hugely influential and shaped the rest of his professional life.
Settling in Melbourne, he became part of a loose group that included conceptual artists and colour field abstractionists, experimenters in found sculptural works and ephemeral assemblages.
It was here too that he developed his famed performative interactions with, and animation of found objects. Duffle Coat, one of his later performances, is also part of this exhibition.
Parks exhibited widely during his time in Australia including at the influential Pinacotheca Gallery in Melbourne and at Sydney’s Watters Gallery and one of his photo collages, Polynesian 100 was shown at the 8th Paris Biennale in 1973.
His work was also included in the Biennale of Sydney in 1976 but by then he had returned to Britain after a year’s teaching in Auckland, New Zealand.
Parks continued to exhibit and take up residencies in Australia including at the influential Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces in 2004, but based himself in the UK.
He preferred exhibiting with experimental and emerging spaces and utilising derelict spaces alongside the Thames. For several years he was a regular at the London Artists Book Fair, where he became renowned not just for his books but the quietly subversive performances that would punctuate the day. The objects he used included a ceramic dog, a large snail, an outsized sponge filled with water and a wind-up clock. At a given signal, bell, gong, whistle, these objects would become part of a minimalist piece of theatre. The snail, for instance, sitting on a pile of computer printout, would have a sheet of paper removed beneath it until, by the end of the performance, which could take several hours, the snail had left a paper trail.
Even when temporarily crippled by arthritis and using crutches, he performed, most notably at the 2007 Venice Biennale, at the invitation of Australian artist Christian Capurro.
Park, who died in 2017, influenced not only his own generation but remains highly relevant for contemporary ones too. His work is in various collections including the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and national and state collections throughout Australia.