Above the Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip, a giant Gibson guitar stands, beckoning the crowd below to enter and hear rock music as loud as the guitar is tall, which is very tall indeed, at 10 feet. It’s a new, crazy sight on a road that is famous for its odd architecture and famous billboards, and its creator lives here in Santa Barbara.
R. Nelson Parrish doesn’t usually go for things guitar-shaped in his artwork, despite coming from a family with a background in Gibson guitars (his grandfather and uncle both played and owned them). His art since his 2005 MFA at UCSB has been about “totems,” long, multicolored boards of resin, paint and wood that combine the minimal aesthetic of John McCracken’s planks with a SoCal lifestyle of surfboards and skis. (It was the vision of them pitched upright in sand or snow that revealed their totem-like potential.) The work looks both familiar — the colors come straight out of sporting gear — and strange.
Earlier this year, Gibson and the Sunset Strip Business Association sent out a call for entries for “Guitar Town,” a plan to install 25 artist-created guitars in strategic areas along Sunset. The Strip is known for its music and architecture, but Parrish submitted another idea: cruising.
“Cruising the strip is another iconic American pastime,” he said.
So he drove the strip with a camera pointing out the side of the car. The 1,000 resulting photos were all blurred lights, like racing stripes, an idea he had been working on a few months earlier during a marathon 26-hour drive to the East Coast from Texas. He says the art project is what kept him awake.
Some of the original Sunset Strip photo studies can be seen on his Web site, and by comparing them with the finished guitar, one can see how Parrish has truly infused the spirit of the evening lights into the work.
To further imbue the art with the Gibson spirit, Parrish inlaid mahogany, walnut, maple and rosewood within the regular wood, all traditional guitar woods.
The commission took him out of his usual work schedule, a change he says was good. He got the call for entries on July 5, when he was in Alaska for a family reunion. The deadline was July 30. Parrish usually takes three months to work on a piece, but not this time.
Soon he was pulling 18-hour days to get it done and lost 10 days off the top because the resin formulation he usually uses didn’t hold. He also bent wood for the first time, steaming it so it would curve. Instead of being in a gallery, the guitar will be out in the elements for a year, so one of Parrish’s final coats was automobile clear-coat.
“It’s protected just like a car,” he says. “It really causes the colors to brighten up. I may incorporate it into my normal pieces.”
Even though it’s a commission, Parrish has numbered the work (#35), putting it within the series of his main works.
“It’s the first time I’ve made work about a particular place and experience,” he says. “Nick Adler, the owner of the Roxy, told me, ‘You get it. This is the Sunset Strip.’ I felt it was successful. And like all my work, it’s built to last.”
R. Nelson Parrish Guitar, ‘#35’
Where: The Roxy Theatre, 9009 W. Sunset Blvd., in West Hollywood