Growing up in San Jose, California, Parker Day spent many afternoons in her family’s backyard, experimenting with disposable cameras and creating her own tableaux with a cast of Barbies and a remote control Godzilla, transforming them from iconic playthings into art props she used to bring her inner fantasy to life. When she wasn’t making her own worlds, Day spent her time in the comic book store her father owned, where she was first exposed to odd, otherworldly protagonists in publications such as Zap Comix and Weirdo, which she describes as, “loud worlds full of free freaks.”
Something about her DIY scenes and those far-out stories stuck with her. But she’s swapped the toys and dolls for humans in her extensive body of work, some of which will be on display starting January 5 at Superchief Gallery in Los Angeles. Called “Possessions,” it’s the latest example of her desire, stemming from those childhood experiences, to give attention to “outlandish, outsider characters and freely expressing those aspects of self we wish to inhabit—or those darker ones we want to bury deeper.”
Using colorful sets and eccentric costuming, the 34-year-old sees the camera lens as a vehicle that allows us to question the emotionally complex relationship we have with our bodies, including its limitations and malleability. In “Possessions,” her images are dripping with personality, drawn from the musky swamp of her subconscious. Models of all shapes, sizes, genders and ethnicities put their mostly nude bodies on display for all the world to see.
Paying homage to La Grande Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, which she saw at the Louvre before starting this series in 2017, the images reference the pose of the famous reclining figure. In this way, Day intended to engage in a long historical discourse over portraits of the human figure (especially that of women who are often subject to the male gaze) while also adding her own contribution to the critical conversation.
In the series, each individual acts out a character Day has constructed in her mind using different postures, facial expressions, props and makeup. In Vehicle, the model, whom she identifies as Sisi Le, has been painted with a black and white checker print as toy cars surround her figure. She wears racing gloves and white boots, and holds a checker print racing flag. In Slime, Lauren Ericks appears against a furry neon green backdrop, lifting her leg into the sky with her body covered in a rainbow-colored goopy substance. In Grow, pregnant model La Goony Chonga lays before us, coated in glitter, surrounded by flowers and eggs in a fuschia-toned backdrop.
Not surprisingly, Day herself appears amidst the cast of characters, explaining, “I always want to include a self-portrait in my larger bodies of work because I want to be willing to do any and everything I ask my subjects to.” Through her images, Day encourages a deep sense of fantasy and playfulness, where her subjects mirror and act out visions from her wildest dreams.
The opening of the exhibition will include a “living set installation,” which will resemble one of the sets from the series but scaled up with models in prosthetics and body paint as well as yards of blood-red crushed velvet and fur. “It’ll be a zone for people to step into my world and take their own selfies and just soak up the freaky vibe,” Day explained. Additionally, a corresponding monograph will be released, containing 46 photographs that exemplify, “the diversity and unity in the unique possession of self and body” according to the publisher’s website.
When it comes to her studio process, most of the photos were shot on 35mm film, with each shoot taking around three hours to complete. Day works mainly alone. As she explained, “There’s something special about being one-on-one with a subject though, it feels more intimate and I think I get truer feelings from my subjects when there are fewer eyeballs in the room.” Still, she appreciates the spirit of collaboration, occasionally working with makeup artists and other creatives to get the images right.
Moreover, this body of work shows a distinct evolution from her looser, earlier series, “Icons” which looked at how costuming informs identity. While in those images, Day collaborated with each subject to conjure up and capture a person’s wildest self through outfits and expressions, in this series she took a more calculated approach, questioning what it means to possess a body. Each image thus poses an answer by breaking down what it means to be incarnate through tropes such as bondage, flesh and blood, which are depicted through different presentations of a person’s body. In this way, “Possession,” proposes that the body itself is our first and most essential costume.
“I want people to feel free to express themselves and change who they are and how they’re seen at will,” Day explained of her aim with her work. Accordingly, her portraits allow individuals to let go of who they think they should be out of fear, and instead step into the personas they dream of becoming.
In a time when public conversations about body positivity and diversity are still entering the mainstream, Day’s work questions the ways our bodies can limit and free ourselves from what is deemed beautiful, normal or acceptable. But ultimately, Day doesn’t really pay attention to the messages brands or marketers put forth: “Sometimes I must secure my blinders so I can stay focused on creating what I want to see in the world, and not have my vision tainted by what’s been done, consumed, and regurgitated by brands.” In turn, Day’s cinematic art invents an alternate universe—one where everyone is given a stage in which they can perform their truest selves.