THE gallery room has been emptied of all art except Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles”. Parr sits to the left of the painting, in a dress, but shapeless, although it does look like he’s stuffed newspaper down the front for breasts.
Parr sits motionless while an anonymous woman in black does his makeup for about half an hour. His blood is also drawn – when he gets up there are two drips of red staining his white skirts.
Parr lies down on the floor in front of three bowls of his own blood. The woman uses a paintbrush to splash and drip blood on Parr, who is now acting as canvas for a new version of “Blue Poles”.
Entering the rest of the gallery, a plywood room displays archival materials from the independent gallery “Inhibodress” that Parr and friends started in the 1970s. A selection of Parr’s daily diaries is displayed circling this space. In these “Black ink records initial thoughts, while red responds” according to the gallery information. Most of the brief notes in black, often to-do lists, are crossed out in red.
In the exhibition proper, several more rooms display installations, drawings and prints.
The drawings and etchings, such as “The Golden Age” (2011) series in one of the last rooms, with its experimental mark making and deep printed blacks, seem as immediate as when they were printed.
In several rooms, projected videos run continuously, looping for hours. In contrast to the prints, the filmed performance pieces lack immediacy. Even when the artist is enduring pain intended to shock, the cinema projection blocks viewer engagement. There are hours of footage running in loops, enduring all of them from start to finish would be a marathon.
The piece for which the exhibition is named, “Foreign Looking” (2013-2015), commands the last room. It consists of a large panel of red painted paper pieces. A video of Parr entitled “Painting-out Performance” plays next to it in which he obliterates the originally black etchings in blood red.
Performing “Jackson Pollock the Female” Parr doesn’t really do anything. It is all done to and for him. And even though the anonymous female is the action painter, the work is credited to Parr.
Jackson Pollock was also tended to throughout his artistic life. His wife Lee Krasner significantly contributed to Pollock’s art: organising him, caring for him despite his destructive alcoholism, and introducing him to many figures in the art world that were critical to his success.
Parr thinks deeply about his performance pieces, acknowledging that the role of the viewer is integral. This piece could be a comment on Krasner’s anonymity, Pollock as hero being taken as read, or Pollock’s self-destruction. But despite his own bloodletting, Parr the performance artist was competing with many other art world personalities on his opening night, as well as the freely available bloody marys.
Red as a veil is a recurring theme in “Foreign Looking”.
Melissa Nickols is the 2016 Arts Writer in Residence at M16 Artspace, Griffith.
“Mike Parr: Foreign Looking” is at the National Gallery of Australia until November 6, daily, free entry.