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Collin Parfait:


In 1995, Collin Parfait, a young English neo-expressionist painter, was doing rather well for himself. Both sides of the Atlantic familiarity with his giant, sexually-charged but enigmatic canvases had been growing steadily for a few years, his work was finding itself in the private collections of a number of famous and influential people, and — with a show coming up at MOMA — it looked like he was poised on the edge of greatness. Then, just as the musicians Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley did at around the same time, he mysteriously disappeared; although he was not — as the papers frenziedly speculated for some time —, like them, dead. One weekend in late August he left London to visit some family in Cornwall, and returned ten days later to declare himself no longer an artist, offering no more explanation to his gallery than a 6”x4” photograph he threw down on the table, and the repeated shouts of “Venus!”, “Ceres!”, “Cunt!”

While in Cornwall — it was later pieced together — he had been taking photographs with his compact camera: both snaps of the family, and others as reference for his next series of paintings. When his father asked him for a copy of a particular shot, Parfait took the film to be developed at the local Snappy Snaps. On looking at the prints that evening, he came across a picture he had taken of a hill a few days before, his attention caught by its slightly odd shape. Only now did he realise what the small cleft in the hill’s peak reminded him of.

According to the painter’s former friend and gallerist, Arthur Price, Parfait had seen in that fateful photograph ‘the meaning of everything that he had ever tried to paint,’ and so resolved never to paint again for it would always be ‘explicitly inferior.’ When asked what he was going to do with himself, ‘he kept talking about pig farming or something…tragic really.’ Uninterested in discussing his various contractual obligations, Parfait seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet, leaving Price in the lurch and the MOMA show to go on without his cooperation.

Price had just started up Gall (his gallery) when he took on Parfait as an unknown in 1991, and was still reasonably inexperienced in the business when they parted ways. Instead of waiting for the suddenly rarefied paintings in his possession to climb toward their peak value, Price sold them all off almost hurriedly, excited at the already astronomical offers he was getting for them. This, combined with the over-confident belief that other valuable artists would soon be queuing at his stable doors, led to Price finding himself and his gallery in severe financial difficulties a couple of years later; but, ever the entrepreneur, Price had a plan.

Since one small photograph had been so decisive in his undoing, Price decided it must have enough significance to make him some money back. The original print had been lost or thrown away, perhaps even torn up in a fit of rage, but Price had the legal right to everything Parfait had created, so he contrived to retrieve the photograph’s negative. Fortunately the family had it, and after twenty ‘unique’ prints had been made, all at different sizes, ‘Collin Parfait: New Works’ was opened in October 1997 amid a flurry of media interest. The problem was that the press coverage was exclusively bad, painting the whole thing as a cynical exercise in making money. Which of course it was.

Nevertheless, the work sold just well enough to keep Price afloat and when he found himself in a similar situation two years later, he did the same again, reproducing the hill photograph at hitherto unseen dimensions. Price has been doing this every two years since with varying success, until last year it happened that the ‘legend of Collin Parfait’ resurfaced amongst a new generation of art students, and Price’s 2007 show was a surprise hit. He extended its run and held the work back from sale, sensing that in just a matter of weeks it might sell for considerably more as the buzz grew around this rediscovered oddity of the art world. He was right.

There are now well over a hundred ‘unique’ prints in existence, and the debate rages over what is the perfect size for its reproduction. One camp argues that Elton John’s ten foot wide version is the biggest and best, because the huge grain (it is a 35mm negative) symbolises the cereal grains of Ceres, the Roman goddess immortalised in Parfait’s terse statement. Andrew Graham-Dixon famously said that Graeme Le Saux's eight-incher was so beautiful it made him cry. There is a team of mathematical researchers at Stanford University working on an algorithm to assess the merit of any given dimensions and afford them a score according to the "Parfait scale".

“And where is this humble hummock?” I hear you ask. Well, no one knows; but if the rumours are to be believed then Parfait’s favourite size is life size, since the popular story goes that he bought the hill and built a house and pig farm on it.

©Simon Claim 2008. Reproduced with kind permission

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©M Ward 2009