Feature: In Conversation with Parra

April 02, 2012

Last week, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened the new mural installation, Weirded Out, created site-specifically by Amsterdam artist, Parra. We caught up with Parra as the artist was finishing up the mural that stands on the museum's second landing, and discussed how his work has evolved since his March 2008 cover, working in black and white, and his first visit to SF. We also discussed the evolution of the mural with SFMoMA's Assistant Curator in Architecture and Design, Joseph Becker. —Evan Pricco

Parra's Weirded Out mural installation will be on display at the SFMoMA through July 29, 2012.

Evan Pricco: You have been in SF for at least a week now, are you getting out at all?


Parra: Yeah. It’s a weird city, though. It’s really quirky, because it’s so small. That’s why it kind of feels familiar, I guess. Because Amsterdam is the same: dense, small. It’s the same size.


Although people always say to me, “San Francisco is similar to Amsterdam,” I don’t feel it.  What’s standing out about San Francisco?


It’s the people. I call it “comfortable-wear,” you know? A lot of fleece jackets and laptop sleeves, and it feels really mellow for some weird reason. But then around the corner it can be super gnarly. And they just pass each other and nobody seems to be bothered. It kind of freaks me out a bit, you know? We don’t really have homelessness; there’s about two homeless in Holland. Used to be more, but we take care of that stuff maybe a bit different?


The way you implement social services…


I don’t have any political ideas about America at all, but I really like it man, it’s beautiful, a beautiful city. I’ve seen so many skate spots, because I’m a skate nerd, still am.



And you spent like significant time in LA too, and this is like completely different. When people say California I have to really explain that this is a whole different experience in SF.


I like LA because I’ve got a couple good people there, but if I didn’t know anybody there it would be horrible, because I don’t drive, I don’t have a license. But for me, LA, even for skateboarding, it was the Mecca. When I was 19, the first time I went to LA, I won a contest. I won a ticket, I was so happy. And then I find out you couldn’t even drink here. I’m like, what? But I kept going back, I don’t know why, but I might switch it up now.


Skateboarding is a big part of who you are.


It was, and it formed me, yeah. Because now, I don’t really care about the industry of skateboarding as much, I follow and see who the new kids are… it has nothing to do with my work, but it did shape me, yeah. Nineties, you know, early ’90s, World Industries, all that stuff. Especially Big Brother Magazine and the skater-art dudes.


Right, Big Brother and that style of writing has influenced everybody after in some sort of way, myself included.


I think it’s basically just the 1990s, not even just skating, but the music… something happened there which formed a lot of thirty-plus-year-old guys and girls. I’m one of them.


Did skate graphics become something that initially attracted you to the arts?


I’m from a very small town; my father is a painter and he moved to small towns because the rent was really cheap. We lived in farmhouses and it was pretty fun, but I had to bike 45 minutes to find the store that had Thrasher. But they only had one new one every six months. So I was looking at the mail order ads in black and white, like, “Oh my god,” you know? There wasn’t anything like that there. For me it was super magical. My first real board, my aunt brought it, she lived in Huntington Beach, and it was a Lance Mountain mini. I was freaking out.



So you had an aunt in Huntington Beach? That’s kind of equivalent to my mom having an aunt living in England when the Beatles were starting, and she would send records to my mom before they broke in the U.S. The idea of this weird, distant spark-plug. And Huntington Beach, that’s the heart of the scene, at least.


Exactly. And I remember it very well because Lance Mountain made the graphic, it was blue, with a little kiddie drawing, but I really liked the back, too, just the Powell logo. And those things, because you didn’t see them that often, it’s still magical. If I see an old board, I’ll pay a thousand bucks for it, because I didn’t have it back then. I have great memories of going to the bookstore on a 45-minute bike ride and hoping the new issue was there. That was awesome.


Your dad is a painter. What kind of work?


Figurative, very figurative.




In it’s own way.


Successful is a relative term.


Yeah. He never broke internationally, but he had a big following in the south of Holland, and he still has, he always had dudes coming by with cash and they would buy in his studio. He hated doing art shows; he’s a funny character. And he’s proud of what I do, because he was always afraid to do that, like a museum would like his stuff and he’d say no. He’s actually one of those guys that will burn his own paintings. He’s totally the opposite of me.  I thought it was bit silly, to be honest. It’s tormented somewhere, I guess. Because he makes awesome sculptures and oil paintings and drawings, and he’s always working, still to this day. And I’m not always drawing, there’s so much other stuff.


Your art kind of ventures into different aveneues, you’ll do like a toy or sculpture.


You’ve got the toy thing, and actually there’s a Kidrobot thing coming out soon. I appreciate all those worlds because I grew up in them. I think toys, I don’t collect them, but I see the value in the whole thing.



Your characters kind of lend themselves to coming alive in more sculptural ways.


Like into a weird action figure? Yeah. The best thing is the porcelain stuff, I’m really happy with that. And that’s kind of more arty.


Was that the stuff by Toykyo?


Those are my Belgian friends. And they sculpt it, and I just found out my girlfriend is a good sculptor, she never told me, so we’re probably going to venture into that. But that’s more the art side of stuff, and it’s pretty expensive stuff, because it’s porcelain, but then I’d also like to do a toy which is like forty bucks.


What about Rockwell, are you still doing that?


Yeah, that’s going actually pretty well in Europe, for a long time, I’ve been at it for ten years now, and actually this is some good promotion because we’re going do it in US.  Because if you wanted to buy something and you lived here, you would have to buy it from us and really expensive. We’re working with a printer now in LA. All my free work goes into Rockwell, and the work I use for Rockwell I use for art shows, too. It’s basically just my friend and me, we can do whatever we want, that’s just awesome.


You’ve been in Juxtapoz before, did a custom cover for us in March 2008, so there’s already a story that people know, with the posters, and the work with HVW8. But how did you meet Joseph Becker of SFMoMA,  and how did creating a large mural installation, a format you don’t normally work in, come about?


Joseph Becker: The first contact was over two years ago, and I think it wasn’t specifically for an exhibition. Although that was in my mind. What I wanted to do was just start with an acquisition, so we started with the “Yes” poster. And then thinking about the future, and there were a lot of different iterations at the time of how this could become an exhibition, and eventually we kind of settled on the landing wall, which I think for both of us warranted not a poster show, but something with a bit more impact.


Parra: That was an initial idea, to just do a bunch of posters, but then Joseph came up with doing a big drawing, see it as one canvas. I was reluctant at first because I never work on this scale, it’s always like the poster-board size, so I’m like, Ok, well, let’s do it. Joseph came down to LA and saw my show at Arkitip, and then we didn’t even talk about black and white before that, but then he saw the show, and it was all about black and white.



I was going to ask about that, as opposed to doing a color piece, this is actually, I think, more dramatic.


Exactly, and that’s exactly the reason Joseph wanted black and white, and I totally agreed. But people like the color. They’re used to that. But for me personally sometimes, if it’s black and white, you look at it differently.


Joseph: If you infuse color into it you engage a lot of different emotions, and it tells a different story.


And sometimes the story is being told to you, whereas this you can kind of work with it yourself a little bit more.


Parra: Yeah, nice eye candy, you know? I love color and stuff, but black and white just suited this wall, I don’t know, it just felt right.


When you did the cover for Juxtapoz, all your work was color, no?


It’s changed dramatically, my work. Not the characters, but the way I draw, the way I draw hands, you get better every time, you know?


When I did the Arkitip show, I ended up selling none of the black and white stuff, although people liked it. But then I thought, “that black and white works.” And the next show I did all in black and white, why not?


Joseph: For me I think the color is really important, I even mentioned in the press for this piece that a lot of Parra’s work is vibrant. Not that black and white can’t be vibrant, because we see here that it is, but we were reluctant not to have any color at all at the museum. And it seems like actually the only thing that we did in color is the flyer for the after party.



What’s the sentence that is in the mural?


It’s about me. And, this is going to sound weird, but I was listening to Kate Bush a lot while making this. This a little story in a nutshell. I broke into my step-sister’s bedroom when I was young, and I stole two tapes: The Cure and Kate Bush’s The Whole Story. Anyways, I still play those every now and then; it’s a good reminder. And then she had a new album out a couple months ago, and I got into that, like okay, I’m going to listen to all her shit, downloaded all her albums, bought a couple, and I was amazed. Then I read about her, and she’s this media-shy artist, and they portrayed her as this weird recluse. But then I found one interview where she’s like, “Well that’s all lies, I just want to be at home with my kid, and people are crazy, I’m just not going to deal with the media circus.” I thought she was really cool, and then the sentence came and then I thought well, that’s exactly about me, too. I keep the world out sometimes. Talk to my girlfriend, she’ll know. The curtains get closed sometimes for a couple of days. You need that.


Do you think this could be the first piece at SFMOMA that has a Kate Bush inspiration?


Joseph: It’s definitely possible.


What does it say?


Parra: “She was alone most of the time, and she got weirded out easily.”


I think Kate Bush would probably really like that.


Kate Bush does something surreal, you know, every time. And I can see that in my work, too. I just do what I do, and luckily it got picked up.