Riding the Word Wave

I always thought it would be cool to be able to surf. I figured it would be kind of like waterskiing but without being tethered to a boatload of drunks. Surfing always had this minimalist, Zen thing to it -- you, alone, riding the surface of the ocean on an elegantly tapered board. It's also very California, which is where painter Aaron Parazette grew up, two blocks from the beach.

Parazette has described surfing as antithetical to making art -- that is, doubt-free. He quotes surfer Mark Foo, who has said, "Surfers are happy people because they always know what they want." Art, on the other hand, is pretty much fraught with indecision and self-doubt -- what to paint, how to paint it.

For his exhibition "Perspectives 141: Aaron Parazette" at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Parazette has turned to surfing to figure out what to paint. The sport has a cultlike appeal; there's a whole lifestyle that goes along with it, and as a result it even has its own slanguage -- in which Parazette is fluent. He has taken surf terms and built a body of work around them. Terms like "kook" (a rank beginner) and "green room" (the tubelike interior of a breaking wave) become the imagery of paintings. Letters are manipulated and used as formal elements rather than signage.

Parazette is noted for his slick, flat, stylized abstractions, culled from designs found in wallpaper patterns, clip-art books and the French curve. He's got a great sense of color and form. With his crisply taped lines and near-perfect surfaces, Parazette has purposefully flirted with the decorative (and in some of his most minimal French curve paintings, made you wonder if he's more than flirting). In his current series, Parazette's use of letters in lieu of more abstract forms gives the shapes of his paintings an additional hook.

A wall painting of a giant stylized breaking wave pulls you into the exhibition. The concentric bands of color move from deep blue to aqua-green, leading you into the eye of the wave. The work makes you wish Parazette would do an installation. It would be great to see something like that enveloping a room.

Surf God (2004) is executed in the same cool aquatic tones. The letters are stretched, angled, interlocked and overlaid. Parazette designs his compositions on the computer, working with his wife, artist Sharon Engelstein. Engelstein is well versed in software like Illustrator, and the pair developed the drawings for the paintings collaboratively. The letters all start out as Helvetica -- a simple, straightforward, serif-less typeface. Words are typed in and then manipulated. And '70s Supergraphics are a big influence.

In Greenroom (2004), Parazette has turned letters on end, stacking and overlapping them to create a vibrantly colored nest of curving, linear forms that are on their way to being unrecognizable. Axed (2004) has an appealing, lopsided awkwardness. A black x crosses the entire canvas, while a hot-pink d crouches in the corner. Endless (2003) is nicely composed -- "end" dominates the canvas, with the e and the d serving as brackets.

I suppose Parazette is also responding to the paintings' phrases in their compositions. Surf God looks like a wave. Beach Bunnie (2004) lacks its in-your-face drama; it features slender, leggy letters of varying heights, and they're rendered in warm, golden tones ranging from light yellow to ocher. I prefer Spinout (2004), with its pale lemon-yellows offset by bold black and the exaggerated differences in the scale of the letters. A giant fat u dominates the center of the canvas and is overlaid by a tiny s.

The paintings are interesting experiments in color theory. Parazette toys with color combinations on the computer, but he really has to sort it out when he's painting. The luminous colors of the monitor don't look the same as the opaque pigment on canvas. Parazette explores complimentary colors, toning hues and jarring juxtapositions, creating color pairings that can sear your retinas with afterimage stains. He crisply tapes off his letter forms and uses tiny pinstripes of other colors to outline them -- in one, a blue radioactively trims an orange. The letters of Spinout are outlined by perfect parallel lines of color. Your eye blends the strands of light blue and reddish-brown into a lavender that radiates against the pale yellow. In the context of all this color, Sketchy (2004), which is rendered in whites and blacks against a silver background, seems way too tame.

Parazette is also showing a series of framed one-off digital prints. He's got some interesting compositions and color combos going on, but they lack the appeal of the paintings. When things are this clean, this precise and this pared down, each element matters a lot more. They're well printed, but the paper absorbs too much of the thin pigmented inks and the surfaces feel dead. The really opaque black ground of Nectar (2004) works the best. Because the poster-size work is derived from text and digitally printed, it's inching toward the graphic-design corner. Maybe if this group of works were done in some heavy-duty oil-based litho inks, they would have more of a presence.

Parazette has chosen words from a surfing vocabulary because they have a particular relevance and nostalgia for him. But really, he could take expressions from Ping-Pong or terms from accounting. The words themselves are ultimately irrelevant. The important thing is their letters, which give Parazette a wonderful excuse to play with color and form.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer