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Closer to Reality

An Interview with Jeff Parrott by Jim Dolan

Big Daddy Roth - Rat Fink Comix

Rat Fink Comix #3 cover

When I was a kid, maybe 12 or 13, I was obsessed with model cars. I followed the work of legendary customizers whose machines were featured in Car Craft and Rod & Custom, and reproduced in 1/24th scale models for mouth-breathing adolescent boys like myself. By owning a model of a famous custom, you could participate in the mystique of people like George Barris, Darryl Starbird, or most memorably, Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth. 

Roth was the creator of a trash art universe based on his iconic show cars of the late 50s, early 60s. They reflected a post-war culture reveling in unlimited resources, endless optimism, full employment and the pursuit of fun. Although Roth’s cars retained faintly utilitarian elements, they were really metal, rubber and fiberglass expressions of pop culture’s fantasies of transportation, going places and zooming into the future.

Big Daddy Roth - Mysteriod  1963

Zooming into the Future:   Roth’s car, Mysterion, 1963

Notable for being over the top, Roth’s machines knew no ‘top’ to go over. If one all-chrome fuel-injected motor was enough for a single-seat hot rod, why not two? 

That element of ‘over the top’ found its way into Roth’s weirdo art, where the Rat Fink was born. That’s Rat Fink, the green critter at the wheel of the hot rod woody wagon in the comic book illustration seen on page one. I doubt Roth consciously intended it, but it seems that Rat Fink was also an opening to the dark side of the post war boom, showing the grotesque in the hydrocarbon Promised Land of coast to coast superhighways travelled by Anglo nuclear families in 5000-pound land yachts. His illustrations teemed with lurid details, each a talisman pointing to some arcane pop culture element of the Jet Age.

 Figures in Studio Window -Photograph Copyright 2015 JRCompton.com/birds   All Rights Reserved.

Some of the figures in Jeff Parrott's studio window     photograph by J R Compton

When I first viewed Jeff Parrott’s art in his studio near White Rock Lake, Rat Fink came back from the mists of time. Jeff’s studio is located on an elevation above his parents’ home.  It’s a rough wood building maybe twelve by fifteen feet. It is typically layered with the detritus of the creative life. A shelf crosses the room just below ceiling height, crammed with an OCD sufferer’s collection of action figures — super heroes, comic book figures, masks, skulls and who knows what else. I immediately thought of Roth’s Rat Fink figures and associated weirdos and monsters sold to us young consumers of the early 60s. They were our earliest symbols of incipient rebellion, reveling in the horrible, the ugly, the monstrous in an air brushed, pre-Beatles pop culture cosmos of singers named Bobby with ‘skulpture kut’ hairdos and khaki slacks. 

Jeff stands in the midst of his studio, thirty-ish, wearing glasses, with a disheveled, nearly black head of hair and beard. He gives off shy, awkward vibes. He strains for words. He seems put off by the ease with which I strike the conversation up, but then, that’s something I’ve done for the last nearly four decades. 

I asked Jeff about the collection. 

“So, you saved your collection of action figures from middle school, huh?”

“Well, actually, they’re from when I was about 19 or 20, something like that,” he said.

“Oh, wow….”

“I … don’t know.  I just … got into them.  They give me imagery I can draw from … I guess?”

“Very interesting,” I said. “When you get a chance, after I leave, do a Google search on Rat Fink.”

Rat Fink figure - early 60s  5-8 inches high

A Rat Fink figure   early 60s  approximately 6-8” high

Yeah, I know, that was a real curve ball, but already I was wanting to bump Jeff out of his reticence by tossing him a few. He is that artist whose head is crammed to the rafters, like his studio, with images, ideas, references, cross references, obsessional totems loaded with meaning, which incessantly wriggle maggots-like escaping the host into his art. At this point, I am fearful that the ‘interview’ (quotes because at this point it was less of an interview and more of a collision of two strangers who nevertheless had prearranged to be in the same place at the same time) is going to crash and burn. But then, I noticed Jeff was carefully attending to the reference to Roth. 

“OK, I will,” he said. I was jagging on Ed Roth, when I needed to be jagging on Jeff Parrott, but the association was too strong to ignore.

As far as I know, Roth only intended to entertain and sell products, where Jeff is a serious artist who labors to put the images in his head, or out there in multi-verse, onto canvas. What that ‘hidden meaning’ will be though is anybody’s guess, as he sees himself more as medium than author. He coined a term, ‘psyexpression’, to name the activity of emptying the latent contents of the unconscious (anamnesis, if you will) onto the canvas. With his headphones plugged into heavy trance/techno/industrial music, he seeks to enter what might be called a shamanic state in which images flow without any effort to govern or make sense of them. Jeff’s canvases are intense and teeming with details and both obvious and occult associations.

Jeff Parrott - Closer to Reality on his studio wall - Photograph Copyright 2015 JRCompton.com/birds   All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Parrott   Closer to Reality   2015   oil on canvas   approximately 48 x 60 inches   on the wall of his studio

We talked about this piece, Closer to Reality, which immediately brought to mind not only the densely packed images of Roth’s trash art, but also the teeming worlds of Jackson Pollock, Heironymous Bosch and the playful surrealism of Max Ernst. Like Roth tipping the world of kustom kar kulture on its head fifty years ago with his comic book weirdo imagery, Jeff depicts the arcane, the unseen, the hidden, and the chaotic he believes we are surrounded by.

“So, what’s going on in this piece? What about the octopus creature over on the right hand side of the canvas?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s like … a Gray …” his voice trailed off.  It took me a moment, but then I connected that he was referring to the popular image of the extraterrestrial creatures whom Whitley Streiber, in his book The Grays, propose live among us, unseen except by those selected for abduction. In the image, we see a tentacle or tube or ray of some kind extending from the Gray to another creature of indeterminate nature, transferring a substance or removing energy or reading its thoughts or … ?

In Streiber’s cosmos, the Grays live among us, revealing themselves only to a small number of witnesses or abductees, those they’ve chosen for their special attentions. When appearing as a sign in Jeff’s art, the piece is implicitly stating that we are looking into the not-so-hidden, chaotic world of the unseen.

 Jeff Parrott's Studio - Photograph Copyright 2015 JRCompton.com/birds   All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Parrott's Studio

Jeff graduated from Bryan Adams in 2001 and from there went to Texas A&M to study environmental design and landscape architecture. Dissatisfied with his studies there, he withdrew and later enrolled at Texas A&M, Commerce, and took a BFA in Fine Arts before heading off to the Art Institute of Chicago for an MFA. He says that while at Commerce he discovered that painting is his true calling. He says his work process comes in huge blocks of effort, sometimes going around the clock for several days until he lets go of whatever seam in the unconscious he has been working and recovers for several days. 

On the day I met with Jeff, my first impressions were that he was either 1) stoned, or 2) deeply unsettled in that ‘strange guy on the bus’ way, or 3) unhappy about meeting with me, or 4) terrifically sleep deprived. It turned out that #4 was true, having just come to the end of one of his creative binges, and he was having trouble kicking his brain into gear. It would be all too easy to conclude that Jeff is aloof, disconnected, but once warmed up, he came across as a very deep, slow, careful thinker, who strives to be accurate about what he is saying, and therefore labors to put his thought into words, when he is much more comfortable simply depicting them on canvas. 

 Photograph of Jeff Parrott by J R Compton

Jeff Parrott at irrational.City

In Closer to Reality, [above] we can see the layering and intense effort involved in opening the portal to the unconscious and keeping it open while the images pour out. I love it that, like Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, his iconography explores the hidden and monstrous in the culture using images from pop, pulp, outsider, comic and weirdo art.

“I describe painting as getting the brain in a trance-like state, ritual of process where the archaic, forbidden, Jupiter, fourth dimension, otherworldly, primitive modern emerge.” I contend that the imagery of pop culture is where all of these elements coalesce, but without conscious intentionality.

Jeff says that art is not to be ‘understood’ or made sense of. It is rather to be experienced, grooved on, ‘dug’ (as in ‘dig’), or maybe even ‘groked’ (Valentine Michael Smith in Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land — Google it!) It is an Ornette Coleman solo, an Ed Roth hot rod, the Mu! in Zen; it is this moment and no other, the unseen lying in plain sight, the Third Eye. 

Parrtot UFO

Jeff Parrott   Your Brain is a UFO, Bro!   2015   acrylic on canvas   48 x 60 inches   2015
image from Jeff Parrot.com

Each canvas has its ‘grounding’ image. In Your Brain … there is a disembodied brain at top center, shaped like a crude UFO with staring peepers looking out at you, suggesting that any unidentified flying objects are likely the ones you carry around in your skull. Here is what Carl Jung said back in 1957 in a letter to the editor of The New Republic, who’d requested his response to the then current near mania re: saucers.

Jung’s book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky came out the following years:

the problem of the Ufos is, as you rightly say, a very fascinating one, but it is as puzzling as it is fascinating; since, in spite of all observations I know of, there is no certainty about their very nature. On the other side, there is an overwhelming material pointing to their legendary or mythological aspect. As a matter of fact the psychological aspect is so impressive, that one almost must regret that the Ufos seem to be real after all. I have followed up the literature as much as possible and it looks to me as if something were seen and even confirmed by radar, but nobody knows exactly what is seen

Jeff is asking the viewer, as does Jung, to think about where UFOs are, in the sky, in our heads, or…?

 Jeff Parrott - Hide and Seek

Jeff Parrott   Hide and Seek   60 x 66 inches   acrylic on canvas   2015   
image from Jeff Parrot.com


Hide and Seek presents a distinctly uterine grounding image at top center, from which is birthed an image not unlike a Mayan calendar, teeming with toes, teeth, bulging eyes, viscera, who knows what else, built up in a riotous welter. There is also a rough asymmetry, where the right half seems to be more abstract blocks of color, while the left seems to take more ‘biological’ forms.

Jeff Parrott - Pink Nightmare 
Jeff Parrott   Pink Nightmare   2015   acrylic on canvas  48 x 60 inches
image from Jeff Parrot.com


Pink Nightmare is presided over by the peering/stoned/paranoid kitty-kat mouthless bunny head of the impersonal unconscious looking out on an empire of hoodoos, skulls, amulets, totems, trinkets, etc, saying ‘You only thought you were sane, or … did you?’ while you are reminded of every psychedelic album cover or ‘underground’ comic you ever stared at in the first five minutes after you put the pipe down.

His canvases are big, commanding, riotous; they take over a room, bend the reality around them, are endlessly absorbing. They fulfill my standard for what makes art ‘good’, which is, does the work make me want it? And to this I would answer, Yes, definitely. 

And I wish i could find at least one piece of the Roth junk that followed me around for a while, damn it.

Jeff Parrott in His Studio - Photograph Copyright 2015 JRCompton.com/birds   All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Parrot in his studio

Jeff Parrot’s work can be seen at RO2art or in the irrational.City exhibition at the Bath House Cultural Center through August 1, both in Dallas.

J R 'adjusted' several of the Jeff Parrott images found online.


Other DallasArtsRevue stories by Jim Dolan

Jim Dolan
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Jim Dolan's DallasArtsRevue Member page.
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