Graydon Parrish was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1970. From a young age, Parrish was exposed to artwork within his household and he had an instant fascination with the arts. Parrish attended the Booker T. Washington High School for Visual and Performing Arts in 1988 and thus began his formal training as an artist.
His primary interest was in classical art, and he quickly began developing his unique style as a classical realist and contemporary painter. This included full-bodied figures, linear draftsmanship, dramatic scenes, high contrast of light and dark, and genre or history paintings.
After graduating from high school, Parrish then went on to the New York Academy and graduated with an MFA in painting in 1990. He then entered Amherst College in 1994 to receive a degree in independent studies. It was at Amherst that Parrish created his first large-scale allegorical masterpiece: Remorse, Despondence, and Acceptance of an Early Death (1999), which is an allegory of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.
The painting focuses on a child’s frail corpse being pulling through the water by a muscular nude man. Another man kneels beside the child, crying into his large hands while a woman holds the body but looks away, unable to fully grasp the fact that a child lies dead on her lap. The sky and sea look like the calm just before or after a storm.
Everything in the painting has a symbolic meaning behind it. There are doves placed around the painting which signify that the child is now at peace, flowers of mourning surround the child, and signs of death, disease, and plague are all present as well. Parrish uses symbolism and classical tradition to make this a succesful and and moving painting. He uses a contemporary subject but draws upontraditional classical elements. Parrish also uses his own experience of being tested for HIV and the anxiety that waiting for his results caused him . From that experience, Parrish took his interpretation of what AIDS meant to him and reflected it in his painting.
A few years later, Parrish was commissioned by the New Britain Museum of American Art to create an allegorical painting in memory of the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11,2001 (2002-2006) was painted in a similar allegorical style of and Parrish again used contemporary subjects rendered in a classical style. For more on this masterpiece, please see this blog post.
Inspired by Jacquis-Louis David and Michelangelo, Parrish paints his figures in a bold and powerful style. The full-bodied figures, the linear draftsmanship, the fact that it falls into the category of a historical painting, patriotism, and the use of primary colors are all references to the great allegorical paintings of the past. However, his use of contemporary issues makes the paintings relevant to the museum-goer and gives them a sense of the raw power that allegorical paintings of the past had on contemporary viewers.
What do you think of Parrish’s classical style? How does fusing it with contemporary issues empower the artwork? Can you think of other artists who work in classical styles? Do you think it is effective? Why or why not?
Make sure to stop by and see Parrish’s recent donation of White Roses, currently on the New Acquisition wall in the Intro Gallery, and the 9/11 painting in the Contemporary Gallery.