Parker Laughlin Jennings is a carpenter by trade, and he’s worked as a set builder at the Santa Fe Opera for a little over four years. “Most carpenters make this clear delineation between being an artist and being a craftsman,” Jennings says. “I’m the opposite. I consider myself an artist first who has found a craft to survive.”
Still, his occupation has informed his art practice in many ways. For his upcoming solo show at Downtown Subscription, Opposing Forces, he presents wall sculptures made from steel and panels of dense fiberboard that look like flatter versions of the structures he's currently building for the opera stage.
"At the opera, I'm fabricating these steel frames that are often at 90 degree angles," says Jennings. "In that state, they're like abstract sculptures. The heartbreaking part for me is skinning them with plywood, because you lose the beautiful skeleton of it."
Over the past few years, his art practice has involved relentlessly stripping back to core aesthetics and ideas. "I have a full-time job, I've got two kids, I have so much going on," Jennings says. "In some ways, my life has forced me to edit, to get to the meat of it." Sometimes the simplest answer to a question is the most unexpected.
Jennings grew up in Santa Fe and attended Capital High School, where he fell in with a set of "really serious graffiti artists." He was aware of the city's fine art scene, but felt excluded by it. "I would walk up Canyon Road and feel nothing," Jennings tells SFR. "Then I'd walk down the tunnel under the Villa Linda Mall, and I would feel inspired."
When the local graffiti crews started getting violent and destructive, he pulled back and looked for ways to channel his creative energy into other art forms. In art school at University of New Mexico, he created tiny sculptures of human skulls with Mickey Mouse ears and discreetly installed them around Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
"Hearing the term 'street art' for the first time and seeing some of the work that was coming out made me reinvestigate what I could do," he says. Jennings was also experimenting with painting and performance art at the time. With a few other students, he transformed a tricycle into a rolling radio station and conducted street interviews with everyday Burqueños. He and his partner Micayla Duran were in their early 20s when they had their first son. By the time they graduated and embarked on a yearlong adventure to China to teach English, they had two sons, 1 and 4.
In China, Jennings and Duran created a website to promote their work. "I started researching the line, the circle and the dot," says Jennings. "There are so many writings, in mathematics and design and visual arts and spirituality, that talk about these elements." He came to understand the dot as the origin of an idea, the line as an action, and the circle as the moment when the task is completed and knowledge is gleaned. The couple claimed the domain linecircledot.com, and Jennings started a new body of work that explored the concept.
"I was making these small acrylic paintings with geometric forms, and painting images over them," Jennings says. "The thing I most enjoyed about the series was this patterning in the background." He became fascinated with the history of the pattern in art and craft. Piet Mondrian and his contemporaries in the De Stijl movement were early influences, and then he discovered the work of contemporary postminimal Mississippi artist Valerie Jaudon. "Inspired by Eva Hesse, she reclaimed these feminine materials and arts and asserted them as high art," he says of Jaudon. As an artist with many craft-based skills, he felt a kinship.
Jennings and Duran returned to New Mexico in late 2012, with big plans for their next steps. They began constructing a geodesic dome on a plot of land near Peñasco, and hoped to live there off the grid. Just as they were laying the foundations of their home and building the frame of an adobe outhouse, they hit a snag. "Our son had been to a couple different public schools up there, and it wasn't working for him," Jennings says. "His fire was dying."
The family ended up back in Santa Fe, and their kids are now happily enrolled at the Santa Fe Waldorf School. "Living out there was supposed to simplify things," Jennings says of Peñasco, "but sometimes the real way to simplify is the opposite of what you're expecting."
He took that wisdom to heart in his art practice, zeroing in on the geometric patterns he'd been incorporating into his paintings. He used a flush trim router to cut the interlocking shapes into boards, subtracting the patterns into existence. The series debuted at David Richard Gallery during last fall's Santa Fe Art Project exhibition program, along with paintings that employed the same motif. Opposing Forces represents another evolutionary leap for Jennings, as he boils the compositions down to their skeletal outlines and creates mirrored patterns.
"I've experimented with so many different styles, but this is the first time I've found a particular motif that has interested me enough to keep reinvestigating and exploring," he says. "It's that continual quest to figure out that primal urge in me to make work."
Opposing Forces Opening Reception
4 pm Saturday May 6. Free.
376 Garcia St.,