Among the succession of well-planned window displays and invitational décor, a storefront in Five Points seems a curious place to display piles of detritus. However, the street-side windows of the popular bar and music venue Rain Dogs – which continues to be a reliable landing place for provocative local art – is now home, temporarily, to mounds of flotsam and jetsam, all of which had previously been deposited in the St. Johns River. Dented milk cartons, foam buoys, rusty hubcaps, a functional-looking umbrella, and many, many, many plastic bottles rest in two-foot-high piles, filling one of the diagonal window displays flanking Rain Dogs’ front entrance. Behind the trash are several large photographs of mercury-colored water backed by ominous grey skies.
Meanwhile, the corresponding display window houses two large abstract paintings behind a kind of funeral pyre, built from driftwood. Extending from the white-and-grey paintings are two ghostly plaster hands that, together, hold a string of celebratory gold balloons spelling out the river’s namesake, perhaps sarcastically.
From a business perspective, a pile of trash and some creepy hands seems a rather repellent choice for a proprietorship that might be banking on curb appeal to draw customers. However, the installation seems to have had the opposite effect, prompting inquiry and intrigue.
So, what’s the deal with all that trash?
Shortly after Rain Dogs co-owner Christina Wagner approached him about creating a new installation for her establishment, Wyatt Parlette — the artist responsible for the installation titled Rio de St. Johns — says he was jogging around the river when he noticed a high volume of trash on the riverbank.
“A lot of people were out [near the river] that day and no one seemed to notice or care about the landfill-esque state of the riverbank,” Parlette tells Folio Weekly Magazine.
“Hell, I had seen the same sight many times and continued on, without flinching. This time, the image stuck with me and I scrapped my previous painting ideas and focused on creating an installation revolving around the river.”
With the help of his wife and a few close buddies, Parlette set about collecting all manner of curious foreign objects from the riverbank.
“The idea for the installation morphed significantly throughout the months leading up to the install,” says Parlette. “One day I was collecting driftwood with no idea how to use it and the next I was taking water samples.”
“[As part of a window display], the trash can be seen to be in a place that it does not belong,” says Parlette of the final product. “We need to look at our river in the same way … It has become so common to see garbage lining the riverbanks that we don’t question it.”
While prepping for the project, Parlette says he read up on the current and potential threats to the St. Johns River, from pollution to dredging, and came away with a new perspective. “I definitely have a greater appreciation for what I believe is Jacksonville’s greatest asset.”
Parlette grew up in Jacksonville and studied drawing and painting at the University of North Florida. Shortly after graduating, he moved to New York City and mostly starved, despite mounting several showings at galleries within the five boroughs – including Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Gallery.
Without the worry of the financial hardships that are the reality of present-day NYC, Parlette has been able to focus more on his painting. Drawn to abstract painting early on, Parlette says his fascination with the style is hard to describe.
“To quote Francis Bacon, ‘If you can talk about it, why paint it?’” says Parlette.
Parlette’s abstract pieces endeavor to convey a psychological reality and the young artist often relies on scale — using fairly large canvases — to convey a sense of mood or atmosphere.
Each abstract painting Parlette created for Rio de St. Johns uses myriad techniques. There are broad, sweeping strokes of white paint and punchy blasts of blue and purple left to drip organically down the canvas. Taken together, with the mounds of debris, the overall series is meant to prompt a complex array of emotions, startling the viewer into contemplation, and perhaps action, on the river’s behalf.
Roughly three blocks from the river, Rio de St. Johns certainly sparks relevance to Riverside locals and visitors alike. This is the second installation Parlette has showcased at Rain Dogs. Without a gallery district, he says, Jacksonville is lucky to have Five Points establishments like Rain Dogs and BREW Five Points that “allow an artist the ability to provide the viewer with a fleshed-out idea, series, or conceptual installation.”
Rio de St. Johns is just a small reminder of the impact of everyday human activity on the natural world. However, given its organic nature as a gallery space, it’s unclear how long Parlette’s installation will remain inside Rain Dogs.
And, inevitably, all that trash will have to go somewhere else.