You’d be hard-pressed to find a recent artist’s book that does more with less than Laurie Parsons’ 36 slides 1986–1990, whose informative, Ruscha-esque title belies the depth and poignancy of its recuperative conceit. Noted curator Bob Nickas, a longtime champion of Parsons’ work and possessor of the titular slides, wrote to the former artist asking for permission to reproduce them in book form. Parsons, who left behind a budding artistic career to practice social work in the early 1990s, amicably granted permission but made it clear, as Nickas expected, that “she didn’t want to be involved” in the project. The book, a creation of both Nickas and Parsons, emphasizes the importance of social connections in the production of art historical memory.
The slides themselves promote an almost archaeological vibe. Many depict piles of rubble and waste excavated from a site along the Hudson River and disposed within as non-sites, in Robert Smithson’s sense of the term. Many others show isolated objects found – an empty beer bottle; a sleeveless maxi dress; a painted wooden plank – which Parsons collected in New York and photographed to determine if she could incorporate them into installations. In the remaining handful are blends – a portrait of a friend; a still from the Spike Lee movie do the right thing; an image from the end of a roll of camera film that looks like a stupendous sunset – which may not be ruins in their own right but now appear as fragments of a bygone era.
The result is an unassuming little book with an outsized emotional resonance. All in 36 slides exists at a remarkable distance from its own past: reproductions of images originally formatted in the now obsolete medium of projector slides, released by a curator who a decade ago stood back from the new art scene -yorkoise in which it’d been installed. Nickas’ introduction deftly balances personal reminiscences with contextualization of Parsons’ work. With its complete 2003 art forum article, “Whatever Happened To: Laurie Parsons”, and the excellent 2019 by Sarah E. James Curly article, “What Art Can Be: Quiet Exit From Art by Laurie Parsons”, the book will introduce a new generation to an old artist with few extant works.
Beyond the simple introduction to Parsons’ artistic practice, 36 slides also serves as a reminder of how quickly the contemporary moment becomes history and how easily history can be forgotten when it fades from immediate view. Every artistic generation probably has to experience obsolescence to grasp its impact, because that’s the kind of lesson that’s hard to learn in the abstract. But acts of withdrawal a la Bartleby pose particularly palpable challenges to presumptions of continuity of the status quo. Thanks to Nickas and others like him, we know that decades ago a young Parsons stopped making art with clarity and purpose. Since then, the curator has done her part to provide a testament to her artistic past that is also a glimpse of what it will feel like when today’s artistic forms and debates seem as far removed from the future as those of yesterday.
36 slides 1986–1990 by Laurie Parsons (2021) is published by Hassla and is available online and in bookstores.