Bring in the clowns

Clowning around in Round One

Dr. Seuss, George Bellows and the Ringling Brothers haunt the room full of clowns in Round One at Ballroom Studios this month. Artist Mark Parrish grew up in Florida with a grandfather who drove the zebra sleigh for the Ringling Brothers' circus princess. It was bound to rub off.

"I had a mild fetish for clowns and always loved carny art. I see my clowns as a type of theatrical mime, not as circus or birthday performers. They're portraits of people," says Parrish.

The Atlanta College of Art grad is among Atlanta's many expats who now live in Brooklyn. After ACA, Parrish went on to Parsons School of Design and completed his MFA there in 1999. A couple of years ago, economics drove him back to Florida where he worked as an electrical engineer for a phone company. He recalls feeling like the office clown, an artistic misfit among the corporate clones.

Bored and discouraged, he started doodling on message pads, memo cards and mailing labels with the office tools at hand — pens, pencils, highlighters and White Out. First, there were cartoon portraits of clowns in vintage prison suits. Then he added boxing gloves for images like the retro-graphic drawing "Shadow boxing." "They needed to defend themselves," explains Parrish.

It's easy to find references to comics from the 1950s, early animations of Mickey Mouse and a bit of Dr. Seuss in these works. The artist himself is covered in bright illustrations, his arms densely tattooed with designs inspired by his passion for skateboarding.

Two walls of the gallery are lined with small drawings on paper and paintings that look like loosely sketched portraits. The slight but classic clownish doodles are the best of those, but the oil paintings on canvas hold a more serious psychology.

"Fancy Francis" was taken from an old black-and-white photo of an Irish boxer, his hands tattooed with "love" and "hate," says Parrish. The image looks distinctly like a self-portrait. Set against a minty green backdrop, the hesitant boxer in red gloves and green shorts flexes his shoulders forward.

Parrish painted a personal version of the Hindu god Ganesh for good luck. The four-armed blue clown has an elephant nose strapped to his white face, wears yellow pants and sits upon a mauve lotus blossom with a red boxing glove on one hand.

Wall-sized, "The Bout" grew from the artist's favorite painting, the late George Bellow's "Stag at Sharkey's." "Stylistically, it's a very American painting. I wanted to reinvent it," says Parrish.

In the contemporary version, a macho merchant marine clown with huge skull and crossbones gloves KOs a rubbery Ronald McDonald type. Where Bellows' brushwork depicts the force and energy in a real life bout, Parrish's messy mix of purple flesh tones, muddy grays and blood reds seems to project his personal struggle as an artist.

Round One continues through March 30 at Ballroom Studios, 107 Luckie St., second floor. Sat.-Sun. noon-4 p.m. 404-522-2709. www.ballroomstudios.com.??