Alphonse Berber Gallery is pleased to present With, a collection of paintings, carvings,
sculptures, and mixed-media constructions by Nathaniel Parsons. Combining the
spontaneity and pathos of Outsider Art with an Egglestonian sense of material culture’s
unlikely poignancy, Parsons refashions the totems and shibboleths of twentieth-century
Americana into an open-ended exploration of the relationships between people and the
things that populate their lives. In this unique body of work, Parsons reveals the human
universal in the thingly particular, the ocean in the river.
Raised on the Chagrin River in Northeastern Ohio, Nathaniel Parsons is the son of
artists; as an infant he was given a Jungian baptism. “They sprinkled water and read
from Gibran’s The Prophet,” he says. “And yet my childhood was very traditional.”
Childhood, specifically a childhood in the second half of the American Century, is a
central inspiration for Parsons’s work. Mass-produced toys, in varying states of repair,
feature in many of the works here exhibited. Like a Drosselmeyer of late capitalism,
Parsons restores these broken playthings to wholeness, endowing them with new,
magical valence — and allows them to develop their own relations and narratives.
As a commodity, the toy is unique — it dwells at once in the general and the singular,
the objective and the personal. Essentially a faceless, lifeless thing, it is particularized by
the child who plays with it, and attains to something startlingly close to human presence.
And another child, with the same toy, may develop an entirely unrelated narrative,
engendering an entirely separate identity for the thing.
Similarly, though they are richly woven with personal history and imagery, Parsons’s
creations are open-ended, unsealed. “There is no privileged narrative,” Parsons says,
“just as there is no privileged viewer.” The works are not to be decoded, he asserts, but
to be played with.
One of the most evocative objects in the exhibition is “Self Hosed,” an icon assembled
from carved, painted plywood and a figurine Parsons found and whittled into a self-
portrait. Beginning with a statue of a Chinese fisherman, Parsons carved the face into
his face, and included four distinguishing attributes, hanging from his belt: a basket,
a picnic table, a log cabin, and a car. His hands seem about to assume the posture
of saintly benediction. This figure, unpainted but with ballpoint highlights, is ringed
by a serpentine garden hose in concentric outlines of a pear. It is the womb, it is the
sea, it is a garden hose. It’s based on a personal myth Parsons developed in a song
written for an old rock band — a boy sticks a garden hose into his house, and it fills
with water. The garden hose leads to the deluge; the specific American life, to all life.
The painting “Smelly Cabin,” which was traced from a video projection, depicts an
incense burner in the shape of a log cabin, enfolded in red gingham. It is a still life drawn
out of animate immobility, a smoking reliquary drawn from a inaccessible myth of the
Hearing Parsons describe his work, it is irresistible to imagine the lives these pieces begin
to lead when the gallery lights are turned off and the world again belongs to them. What
is the status of the object in among humans? What is the status of the person among
Through the meaning-making that is unavoidable in an encounter with Parsons’s works,
we are offered, it seems, a glance at answers to these questions. And we see, too,
something huge, nameless, ahead — something larger than death and yet more specific.
Maybe it’s rebirth and transformation, maybe it’s reconciliation with the objects that
remember us as we would like to be; maybe it’s a passage through the pasteboard masks
of things, and access to the buried life beneath.