Rags of Light – Ben Parsons


Meanings surface in textured paintings of Ben Parsons

His favorite tools are a rolling pin, razor blade and electric sander.  His work is scarred, peeled and gouged.  His focus is on surface texture.  And yet Ben Parsons is thoroughly a painter, and a formalist 

at that (“religiously so,” he says).  His abstract paintings do not revel in paint, but in the memory of it, ghosted into large-scale canvases that have been cut and puzzled back together.

Rags of Light, a small but powerful solo show at the Southside Gallery in Tremont in Cleveland, is a study in controlled chaos, balanced tension and pure poetry.  A cursory glance at three large paintings and four smaller collages fools the viewer into thinking these are archaeologically layered, as if someone has rescued decaying parts of a large mural.  Closer inspection reveals symmetry and armatures for organic forms; swirls; dots; fields of color; and abrupt intrusions of lines, sharp geometrics or drips.  

The muted tones of steel blue, pale green, washed-out peach and others belie the ferocity with which Parsons works over his canvases.

In Uncoiled, he has used the rolling pin, not to press in, but to pull paint off certain sections.  Deep gouge marks are scars, stitched back together by lines of dripping paint.  Culled from three previously painted canvases that were broken apart and rearranged, Uncoiled gets its verve from fresh juxtapositions.  Two sinuous black lines snake their way down the canvas, echoing each other, their paths broken by patches 

of white paint. Once ovals, now cut and pierced back to back, the lines speak of energy released.  Bright blue circles have been almost obliterated by deeply gouged black marks, as if such cheerfulness can’t 

survive in this deceptive labyrinth.  It’s a stellar painting.

Adrift, also in acrylic and latex, is pieced together with rectangular shapes whose edges don’t meet, 

making crevices where the “light” shines through.  Overpainted with warm washes of peach, orange 

and ocher, Adrift seems adrift, indeed, until the viewer “connects the dots”, a bright, rosy rectangle at 

the top tethered by a long swath of watery black to a smaller black box near the bottom.  These 

narrative hints are beautifully ambiguous – a boat adrift from a dock, a person adrift from another,

the self adrift from the soul.  Parsons inserts tiny, visual anchors: a red dot, an orange splash, pieces 

of canvas resembling an eye.

Though they appear built-up, the work is on one plane, an influence of his job as a stained-glass maker and restorer that is evident in several collages made with ink on blueprint and carbon papers.  In Becalmed, crayon tracings of old leaded glass become a map of rivers and roads; the lack of road signs indicates the journey is interior.

An old piece of stained glass with a faint organic shape graces others, a repeated image made by placing the glass on light-sensitive paper.  The show’s title piece, Rags of Light, is filled with various shades of black and indigo, the color of full-moon skies infused with the feeling of swimming at night.

The overall effect of Parson’s work is ebb and flow, balanced by its underlying vigor and ferocity.  There 

are no gimmicks or kitsch; he never reaches for what’s easy or obvious.  The result of deep musings, his work resembles poetry in its compression, requiring long looking as new meanings surface.  The way he heals pieces together recalls William Butler Yeats: “Nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent.”

Rags of Light, in the small, earnest gallery founded by Jean Brandt, is actually missing a painting: it was tapped to be in the Butler Institute’s National Midyear Exhibition.  A 1988 graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, Parsons has shown his work here and there, but Rags of Light signals a bright talent.

Ben Parsons

Rags of Light

July 17 August 28 1998