Graydon Parrish has a love affair with the classics. It began when he was just a child, wandering through French museums, pausing at paintings in order to visually dissect each painstakingly crafted brushstroke, examining sculptures for every meticulously molded or carved detail.
“I just fell in love with classical art,” Parrish says. “I remember when I was in junior high, walking through the Louvre, looking at those pieces and thinking, ‘I want to do that.’”
Now an acclaimed contemporary painter with classical sensibilities, Parrish creates the kind of artistic treasures rarely found in today’s art world. Profoundly provocative, wrought with emotion and commanding attention, his paintings unfold to the eye in layers, each characteristic revealing itself gradually and with poignant detail.
Parrish is originally from Tyler, but he was not consumed by small-town life. Rather, he pursued his arts education avidly and, because of his discernable talent, was afforded rare opportunities to study under art’s finest teachers. A true artistic prodigy, Parrish was one of the only students accepted to the Dallas Arts Magnet school in his senior year of high school. But he was discouraged that, like many art-based institutions, classical painting was not a course of study taught there.
So after high school, Parrish enrolled in the New York Academy of Art, one of the first schools to reintroduce classical painting in contemporary art, and the first graduate school in the country dedicated to the study of the human figure, one of Parrish’s specialties. He was the youngest student at the time and essentially pursued his master’s of fine arts degree before ever having attended undergraduate classes.
Parrish remained in New York for six years, studying at the Academy and apprenticing under professor and painter Michael Aviano before enrolling in Amherst College in Massachusetts for his undergraduate education.
Influenced by the work of William Adolphe Bouguereau (a French traditionalist whose work was a modern take on classical style), Parrish considers himself a humanist, and finds much inspiration in simply observing closely the world around him. He says he’s “always curious about reality,” and by immersing himself in the minute details of life, he’s able to channel those memories and experiences in to his work.
“Most modern art deals with how the piece was painted, the technique. Classical painting is more about clarity. There’s something about classical art that has the ability to reach so many things that haven’t been painted in classical ways,” Parrish explains. “I want someone to look at the image especially as a vehicle for clarity and expression of humanist values, openness and accessibility. That’s very important to me.”
All of Parrish work is captivating and much of it speaks to modern plights. For instance, his “Remorse, Despondence, and Acceptance of an Early Death,” a piece he painted while at Amherst, is a somber, wrenching allegory of the AIDS epidemic. But the work that has most defined Parrish in recent days is his massive oil-on-canvas mural, “The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy,” a moving commemoration of the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“That 9/11 painting was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Parrish admits. “There was sweat and there were tears, but I became a better painter because of it. What makes everybody better is placing really difficult obstacles in front of us. If you can overcome those obstacles, you’ll be better for it.”
Having recently moved to Austin from Boston, Parrish spends his days in his South Austin studio, working on two to three paintings at a time and ducking out only occasionally for a margarita or a quick jaunt to Flipnotics. His upcoming exhibition at the Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York is keeping him pretty busy. Though the show isn’t scheduled until 2010, Parrish plans to present about 20 paintings including at least four major 8-by-8 canvases.
“A third of the work will be figurative paintings, another third will be still life and the last third will be a new type of trompe l’oeil, all from the classical perspective,” Parrish says. “This will be my first one-man show in New York, so there’s a lot of pressure to deliver the highest level of quality.”
But Parrish is up for the challenge. After all, he says, it’s his and other artists’ responsibility to bring to the world more accessible, highly skilled works of art.
“I think, as artists,” he says, “we owe the community our best effort.”