Gates to meaning 

In one of his strange and wonderful stories, the great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges referred to the dictionary as a monument to thousands of cultural victories. Defined, agreed upon and celebrated, the victories are the words themselves, those little black, encoded marks that carry an exacting signifying power.

In an analogous way, Valerie Parks’ new paintings continue a haunting suite of works that, like the words we use, manipulate a similarly inherited body of patterns into an emblematic mapping of social order, manner and identity. In her elegant but inscrutable, painterly manipulation of decorative images — lace doilies, floral motifs, elegant chandeliers, silhouettes of female forms, filigreed gates of mansions, stained-glass windows, aerial maps, as well as archetypal social objects and architectural space — Parks becomes a mapmaker and a playwright of visual literacy.

Parks pilfers her forms from a variety of catalogs of stock images for business cards, generic print-shop imagery, flower-seed catalogs (such as the Burpee Seed catalog) and the Audubon bird encyclopedia. She uses the history of our culture’s visual imagination found in these alternative libraries for a beguilingly subtle, allegorical narration — suggesting the codification of our lives by corporate logos and name brands.

While the paintings in this show are less ambitious in their use of this pattern language than those in Parks’ last exhibition at Center Galleries, it’s their very simplicity that makes them so appealing and her concerns so apparent. Six of these paintings are included in “Ironworks” and they serve as a contextualizing model with which to read the new works.

The Accountant and the Cartoonist: elm, for example, depicts silhouettes of a man and a woman in conventional dress. The woman is paired with a geometrically complex stained-glass window and the man with a maze that could be an aerial map of a golf course, a labyrinth or a cartoon. Decorative stars circulate around the images, creating a compelling figure-ground relationship. The power of a religious and social order is implied and we’re left with this haunting image that emblematizes something unknown and unknowable. In Parks’ painting, the figurative is more uncertain than the abstract, yet we submit to it with a kind of painful surrender.

The new works are mostly of a single paint-encrusted image. As always, Parks’ colors are schemes of seduction and decoration, and imply an ambient music for the dance we’re decoding. “Ironworks,” the title of the show, comes from her frequent use of cast-iron gates such as are found at the entrance to mansions. In two small paintings, Leitmotif-minutia (pink) and Leitmotif-minutia (aqua), a double iron gate with floral decoration is delicately rendered, almost as if in lace. Behind it and in the upper corners are lovely Audubon images of birds. The simple evidence that we’re provided with allows a simple reading. We, the viewers, are on one side; beauty and freedom are on the other side. But what the paintings mean is not the point. Their very physical presence — the confining dance they create and inscribe, like the social order we’re confined within — is their grace and meaning.

In two other small paintings, hena haru (sage) and hena haru (rascality) (pictured), a symmetrical, doodlelike image seems to transcend Parks’ preoccupation with inherited forms and is its own invention. This pairing of two essentially identical images, each reflecting a different context suggested by palette and aura, completes the dizzying investigation of patterns and forms of our lives, and suggests that even the doodle encodes a rite of passage.

“Ironworks: Paintings by Valerie Parks” is at Au Courant Interior Design Studio/Gallery (23255 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; call 248-548-3770) through July 26.

Glen Mannisto writes about visual art for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com

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