Have a cow: Director of art world send-up (Untitled), Jonathan Parker, reminds us that parody is a form of flattery.

Parker and di Napoli on Parody and High Art

Adam Hartzell November 1, 2009

If you were intrigued by Ben Lewis’s documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble at the recent San Francisco DocFest, or if you’ve picked up one of the copies available throughout the San Francisco Public Library branches of Sarah Thornton’s compelling anthropological study of the contemporary art world, Seven Days in the Art World, you will definitely want to check out Marin-based director Jonathan Parker’s latest film, which played the SF International this past spring and opens in the Bay Area this coming Friday. The hilarious romp through the comic fodder available in the world of conceptual art and atonal music, (Untitled) is a film destined to be seen in the theater for the benefits of the sound systems theaters provide; its sound design, provided by San Francisco local Richard Beggs, is integral to the film—as is the score provided by Pulitzer Prize–winning new music composer David Lang. I sat down briefly with Jonathan Parker and cowriter Catherine di Napoli (also a Bay Area local) to discuss (Untitled) and the following is a snapshot of what transpired.

SF360: There’re so many gems of dialogue. Did you save them for a while and bring them to the film, or was it more something that came about in the brainstorming process?

Jonathan Parker: We researched this material pretty extensively. Besides just going around to a lot of galleries and observing the sellers and the artists and the buyers, we interviewed a lot of dealers. And I remember going on a lot of studio visits with a particular dealer/gallerist in San Francisco. So I think a lot of the lines came out of conversations with real participants in the process.

Catherine di Napoli: It kind of gives it an authentic quality when you just remember what people are saying.

SF360: And it does feel "overheard." There’re so many choice lines, but I do feel like I would have heard that at an art gallery or I probably have heard that. You had mentioned that you were also a musician. Were you a bucket kicker?

Parker: I never actually kicked a bucket but I’ve done some equally odd things. I think of this concert I played in many, many years ago. It was a Stockhausen performance. I was playing bongos and I think there was a tuba and a viola and something like that. You spend a lot of time preparing for a concert like that—this is not easy music to learn and perform—and you get to the point of the concert and you realize there’re nine people out there. It just gets you thinking.

SF360: [The art piece about the] light bulb going on and off. I assume that’s a reference to Martin Creed, the Turner Prize winner. We also had the clarinetist walk into what appeared to be a Donald Judd sculpture. I have limited exposure to the deep part of the contemporary art world, so with those being such specific references, [I’m wondering], is every single art piece a reference to an actual artist out there who has received acclaim?

Di Napoli: Or a conglomeration of art. It’s not necessarily one specific piece. It’s kind of a parody or a tribute too.

Parker: Every piece is a parody of a specific couple of pieces that we have conflated for it.

SF360: I’m also really curious about the prop designers on the film and that whole process. Could you tell me a little about them?

Parker: Sure, there’s a lot of different art in the movie. The taxidermy pieces, the Vinnie Jones character’s work was a collaboration between two young artists. Kyle Ng in Los Angeles has worked a lot with taxidermy and has a taxidermy collection largely responsible for us using that material. Originally we went to him with other ideas. And then the concept for those pieces, most of which came from actually my son Sam Parker, who’s an art student at NYU and very aware and knowledgeable about the contemporary scene. He did a nice job on that and some of the other art work, such as the "No You Shut Up," which is kind of a Christopher Wool parody. That was Sam’s idea as well as the dildos on the heads of the child mannequins. Those are obviously parodying specific artists.

Di Napoli: Frank Holliday did all the Josh Jacobs paintings. He really took it very seriously. That wasn’t the kind of art he usually does. . . . [One day], he was talking about his art, explaining it. "A dot is just a dot. Two dots is a relationship. And three dots is a plane." And when he was just saying this very seriously about his work, that was some really great stuff that we were able to pull and use in the script. And I think he’s really proud of his work, which is great because I think it does have some integrity. I think he’s incorporating some of that into his most recent pieces.

Parker: He wasn’t so proud of it that it prevented him from disassembling all those canvases at the end of the shoot. [Laughter.]

Di Napoli: He was like, "Am I allowed to disassemble it now or are there reshoots?"

SF360 : You should’ve said "No, we’re going to sell it after the movie." [More laugther.]

Parker: We thought it’d be like Spinal Tap going on tour. We send his art out into a gallery.

Di Napoli: And Kay Lee did a really good job too with the panda bears.

SF360: I didn’t want to mention the panda bears, as too much information about the film, but that cracked me up.

Parker: Kay was our set decorator and she’s got a thorough art background and did really tremendous work.

SF360: Was it dictatorial [with the prop designers]? "I need this kind of piece, this kind of piece and this kind of piece!" Or was it more so, "Hey, have fun with it, bring it to me, and we’ll see if we can incorporate it into the film"?

Parker: We designed every piece ahead of time, we storyboarded them. Like you say, they are all specific parodies of either actual pieces or combinations of a couple of actual pieces. So we gave them pretty specific direction in that regard.

SF360: While I’m watching this film, I could see the humor and absurdity in it, but there’re these certain points where I’m like, "Uh, I kinda like Donald Judd." [Laughter.] I kinda like his work. So I’m curious, in the [same] way where there’s that song that you hate that you like, do you have a particular artwork where you’re, like, "I shouldn’t like this, but I actually really, really like this" or do you never really look at it that way?

Parker: They say parody is a form of flattery. So I think if we’ve got a parody of a Donald Judd work . . . if you go to the auction houses, there’s like a Spring auction and a Fall auction and there are competing auction houses, and the thing that used to crack me up was that each one of them always had one of those Donald Judd stacks. We’re making fun of it because, well, frankly, how do you put that in your house. That’s dangerous!

SF360: Especially if you have children. . . . I’m curious about your selection process of what you did and didn’t put into the film. Were there examples of things where you were like . . . "Oh that’s just too much. It’s going to ruin the pace of the film"?

Parker: We were conscious of not trying to out weird real artists because I don’t think that’s possible. To keep the film short of the farce line and keep it a real convincing feel, I think we decided to use materials and specific references to specific artworks to make that seem familiar to anybody who has wandered around contemporary galleries. It should feel somewhat familiar and believable. So that was a fairly conscious choice to stay within the realm of reality there.

Di Napoli: Sometimes if you go too far it doesn’t even seem real anymore.

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