Anyone familiar with the vedutisti, the historic view painters of Venice, is likely to
regard the works in Tom Parish’s current exhibition as a challenge accepted. In the
eighteenth century artists like Bellotto, Canaletto, and Guardi celebrated Venice as
the embodiment of grace and light, leaving most of us with the belief that theirs was
the image of the true and absolute Venice.
But not all of us. Parish demurs. Whatever else his Venice is, it is not the one the
vedutisti proposed. For one thing, he is painting in the twenty-first century, and
the world no longer honors the absolute as it once did. For another, Parish is his
Though he is as transfixed by the great city on the Adriatic as the vedutisti were,
he neither celebrates nor glorifies it. Nor is he strictly bound to the example of John
Singer Sargent, who recorded Venetian scenes with the cool eye of a journalist.
Parish is more than a fact finder. Critics writing about him in the past have noted that
his paintings are often marked by mysteries and ambiguities. Conversations with him
have confirmed as much, in view of his admiration for Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978),
the so-called Italian “metaphysical” painter whose work prefigured the fantasies of the
surrealists. “One of my people,” Parish calls him, recollecting some of the obsessively
repeated images in de Chirico’s work: “When a train goes by my window, Tom Parish
becomes de Chirico, I also hear blues music in those paintings — the long, lonely
blues sound of the moving train.”
As Parish talks, he is reminded of other Chiricesque themes, like buildings whose
façades feature arcades: “The dark undefined space behind the arches stands for
the unknown. So do titles, like “The Enigma of an Afternoon” and “The Disquieting
Muses.” As if to reinforce his point of view, he has this much (or this little) to say about
Piet Mondrian: “He was able to wring a lot out of a dry wash cloth.”
A majority of the works in the present exhibition offer the gallery visitor evidence of
Parish’s discovery of mystery in Venice. None is more obvious than “Notte serena,” in
which the building to the right is veiled in darkness except for several window lights
that clarify very little. The façade in the distance is barely revealed, leaving us more
mystified than instructed by it. In turn the pediment, symbol of classical form that
architect Andrea Palladio employed with such precision and eloquence in his Venetian
churches, is here an image of gloom, made more alien still by the asymmetry of
the two supporting columns. Ironically, this night (“notte”) is anything but serene
(“serena”), and as soon as one reflects on the title, the historic nickname of Venice, “La
Serenissima,” seems drowned, engulfed by the waters at the base of the painting.
The waters! They may be the most spectacular formal aspect of the paintings on view.
One could confine one’s attention to the waters solely, for they are proof of Parish’s
exceptional technical command. Consider “Giudecca,” where he has effected a
striking contrast between the stillness of the facades with the furious activity of the
water. Assorted moods of excitement or mystery are conveyed by waters throughout
the show, in action or at rest or flowing around a bend of a canal in the direction of
a destination that remains unknown. Or just lying in shallow puddles, like the water
covering the floor of “Osteria,” a painting reminiscent of the vernacular of Venice’s
side street shops.
Among the most riveting paintings in the show is “Piano 5,” a canvas that bears a title
worth discussing, after one concentrates on features combining to create a psychic
atmosphere that is more than a little eerie. There are two affecting moments here:
the moon in the sky above us and the profile of a figure in the top story of a building
in the immediate foreground. Exterior and interior. Far and near. The figure occupies
a window rather than the more public space of a balcony. In historic iconographical
terms the moon conceals more than it reveals, and while this artist has all technical
skill to let us know exactly who the figure is, or what he, or she — stands for, Parish
has preferred to keep us wondering. To think back to the efforts of the great vedutisti,
Bellotto, Canaletto, Guardi, is to travel through time to an essentially different world.
So back to the title, and more comments Parish has made in recent conversations.
He is familiar with the major international capitals, having visited, among others,
Paris, London, New York, Rome, and Vienna. Then why Venice? “It’s a matter of
scale,” comes the reply. “I like big paintings, of smaller things. I don’t do skyscrapers.
New York is a city of skyscrapers, and London and Paris display structures of similar
dimensions. I’m more at ease in Venice, where buildings usually go no higher than
Hence “Piano 5”, a title, I’m inclined to say, that is the only aspect of a work otherwise
wreathed in opacity. A last look at the painting reminds us that the fourth floor looks
out from a series of arcades. De Chirico redux. The round-arch of the arcade is a
device as standard in Venice as the rectangular wall-opening. And Parish, true to the
de Chirico gospel, depicts an arcade in “Primavera” that hides more than it shows, a
painterly gesture echoed by the restless reflections in the water below.
From what we have already said, it may seem that Parish is constant in his likes,
dislikes, influences and objectives. The paintings discussed thus far attest to his
identity as an invoker of mysteries and willing disciple of Giorgio de Chirico. But at this
point in these remarks another historic figure looms in the background, towers over it
and demands attention, chiefly because Parish says he does. The man he is talking
about is Jan Vermeer of Delft (1632-1675).
A giant of 17th century Dutch painting, Vermeer is a master poet of down-to-earth
realism — and surely least of all, a fantast. Even so, “Vermeer is my god,” says
Parish, who has never offered such ultimate praise to de Chirico or any other
artist. Parish has little more to say in explanation of his judgment. “Vermeer finds
universality in specifics” is as much as he says, leaving it up to us ourselves to figure
out what he means.
His last statement does bring to mind a comment made to Parish when he was
a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His instructor was Walter
Stuempfig, a painter well regarded in post-World War II America and respected by
Parish himself, who years later remembered a conversation he had had with his
teacher during a crit. Parish was showing his painting of a New Jersey beach, and he
told Stuempfig that he wanted the rhythm of the water where it touches the land and
recedes to convey a quality of “universality.”
“Universality?” Stuempfig responded, “From something as specific as water touching
the New Jersey land and receding? I think you should redefine your terms and your
goals. Because when you acknowledge the specific and accept it, the possibilities of
the large generalization can come from it.”
That recollection provides us an association. We spoke earlier of Vermeer’s
“down-to-earth realism,” brilliantly exemplified by “The Milkmaid,” in which a stream
of milk from the milkmaid’s pitcher is caught in a nano-second, in mid-flight. The
scene could not be more realistic or more specific. Meanwhile, another painting
by Vermeer, “View of Delft,” comes closer to the personal preferences of Parish,
who for years has concerned himself with cityscapes.
What “View of Delft” has in common with “The Milkmaid” is a realism as detailed,
comprehensive and convincing in 2010 as it was in 1660. Call this the universality of
specifics that Walter Stumpfig was talking about. From there it is only a short step to
observing similar qualities in several of Tom Parish’s work in the Gruen exhibition. In
these cases Parish leaves mystery and the unknown behind him. He is a fact-finding
journalist reminiscent of John Singer Sargent. In “Finestre” the surface of the wall of
a building is presented altogether believably: the color both local and reflected
is accurate; ditto the balcony, windows rectangular and round-arched, with no
mysteries leading us on. We have already spoken of “Osteria,” whose verisimilitude
readily reminds us of Venetian scenes we have seen in the past. We might have
added that we find similar treatment in “Cannaregio II,” one of the most impressive,
and indeed monumental paintings on view. Even “Piano 5,” with all its weirdness, is a
thoroughly credible document of Venice. And specific. The scene depicted could be
nowhere other than the jewel of the Adriatic.
The conclusion follows that Tom Parish has mixed naturalism and fantasy in parts and
portions that together are fully digestible. He is surely the most reliable contemporary
biographer of Venice, an artist who deserves his place in the company of the best of
the earlier vedutisti.
Prof. Franz Schulze
Lake Forest College, Critic, Historian, Writer — Chicago