José Parlá interviewed at his studio, Brooklyn, 11th Feb 2008
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
There’s a painting in José Parlá’s Brooklyn studio that he would never relinquish. The Parlá Family Tree is a triptych which contains within it in concentrated form all the themes of the artist’s work. It’s a particularly dense and tenebrous composition; spiralling cursive inscriptions made in Uni Posca marker pen blow like a hot sirocco across the three canvases and press into accreted layers of oil paint and gesso. The liquid dynamism of the abstracted scrawl wafts over the hardened impasto of the surface below to create a mesmerising multiple depth of field. As with many of his paintings, it’s a work which operates partly as a psychogeographical map recording what Parlá calls “segmented realities”, pictorial zones inscribed with traces of his own family history on the cusp of being lost, an aura that is kept alive as a visual mnemonic, the emotional experience of generations transmuted into paint.
Parlá’s great-grandparents migrated to Cuba from Lebanon, whilst other branches of the family arrived in the same place from France via Haiti. Born into the Cuban community in Miami he actually grew up in Puerto Rico before translocating back to Miami at the age of nine. He only recently travelled to Cuba for the first time, still an unlawful act for an American citizen.
Parlá confides that the multi-layered stylised tagging text on the surface of his paintings are for him like writing a private letter or intimate diary entry to relatives he never met as he unravels their histories alongside his own. But the strategy behind this is conceptual rather than literal, since the density of the text makes it impossible for anyone other than the artist himself to decipher.
“It’s not so much like I’m going to hide this so no one can read it, it’s more like the concept of painting; I’ve always believed that a good painting has lots of history within it, not just within the artist, but in its layers that show true experimentation. A search for a better painting is just as important as the narrative behind the painting.”
On a mantelpiece next to The Parlá Family Tree is a small etched portrait of his grandfather Agustín Parlá, Cuba’s first pilot and godson of José Marti, father of the Cuban revolution. Printed on an official post office envelope issued in 1952, it celebrates his maiden flight from Key West to Havana. He later died under mysterious circumstances clouded by tobacco farming interests and Communist espionage. It’s a secret history which adds an intriguing dimension to the encryption in his grandson’s paintings.
José Parlá is fascinated by the way memory is filed away by the mind and he constantly returns to the thematic triad of city, history and memory in his work, the sense in which the truth of such episodes played out in the streets has been whispered into the city’s walls, layered into decaying plaster, like a faint echo of a human voice that finds visual form.
History as slow time is juxtaposed against the rapidity of the signature, and in this way Parlá attempts to capture a sense of the physical and emotional temporality of urban life. A painting entitled Displacement of Location communicates the sensation of being in an alien city navigating blind, referencing the Situationist practice of using the map of one city to walk around another. On a trip to Istanbul, Parlá and a friend explored the city without a plan, alternating between themselves the arbitrary decision whether to turn left or right. And yet on closer inspection, secreted within this work are markers of familiarity rather than alienation, for the painter at least. Embedded in the wall-surface are Parlá’s writing name, Ease, as well as his former crew, Fuck All Authority, replaying a late 1980s’ memory of familiar signage on the streets of Miami.
On a scholarship to Savannah College of Art & Design, Parla’s professors were discouraging, belittling his paintings as inconsequential scribblings good only for the street. He had been inspired as a student by Brassaï’s photographs of graffiti from the 1930s, and the parallels he discovered at an exhibition of Aaron Siskind’s work led in turn to an interest in the gestural qualities of Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly’s developments in Abstract Expressionism. He confronted his teachers with the evidence of these venerated artists’ techniques and questioned their stereotyping of his work as affiliated to crime, gangs and destruction.
“So Twombly became not so much a comparison, but a necessity and a challenge to the professors who dismissed my work.”
Just as important as the canonical art historical precedents, though, is the direct engagement with the recent history of street art.
“My work came out of a tradition of exceptional calligraphers – Phase 2, Futura 2000, Stay High 149, Taki 183, Case 2 – all these amazing writers. I’m trying to show that through this line I’m representing the history of these writers, that it’s beautiful calligraphy, and that it’s art. The Miami writers had a style that leaned back. In Philly they had what was called gangster style, really tall, and in New York City it was thick, compact and tough. In Miami we combined those two East Coast styles and added a long underline so it looked like it was shooting out, flying.”
Dynamic interaction remains key to Parlá’s work. Pirate Stations, for example, depicts an instant of looking through the window of a subway train onto the walls of the tunnel outside, graffiti tags and pieces momentarily lit up by the spark from a metal wheel. Each painting is approached differently, carefully, but with the same formidable energy. When he’s careless, which is seldom, it’s a deliberate ploy to take himself “out” of the painting momentarily and see the work from outside in. Sometimes he might paint on them with eyes closed, throw paint at the canvas or invite others to paint on them.
Quick gear-shifting between modes comes naturally. Whilst on one hand he spends considerable time adding layer upon layer to make these painted palimpsests really dense physical objects, on the other there’s an impressive lightness of touch in the speed of the writing.
“The speed is really necessary, you’re going to get a really different energy and a different stroke depending on how slow or how fast you paint. Over the years, since being a really little kid at the age of nine, my style developed through speed. You have to remember that when you’re out there writing on stuff, you want to do something stylish, something good, but you’ve got to do it fast so you don’t get caught. Speed became the commanding element in how the style grew. But it was always about doing something ‘quality’. At the beginning I remember if you dripped it wasn’t good, but now that’s flipped. A lot of the kids I see doing it are sloppy, they’re messy and drippy and that’s their cool thing now. In the Eighties you didn’t want it to be sloppy, you wanted it to be nice, had to have original style so that your signature didn’t look like anybody else’s. It was okay to be under the family influence of a crew but your style had to be original. Now, whether I spend three months or a year on a painting, for the time I’m actually working on it I’m working fast because the energy to me that’s going to end up on that canvas is the same energy that’s integral to the city’s life and the city’s pulse. To me, the city’s always been loud, crazy, fast, dangerous and dark – there are very few points in a city’s life that you can relax.”
Shrubland Road, with its tar, polyurethane and enamel cracking, took three years to complete because Parlá felt the experience of that episode concerning a relationship he’d had for a time in East London had to work itself through in order to be fully understood.
“Thinking about a painting is the same as actually putting paint on the canvas, you’re still concentrating on it.”
On his first trip to London in 1998, Parlá has a concrete memory of running his hand through wet plaster near London Fields. Studying a city’s walls he feels is a way of gauging the anger of a city. Regardless of being able to read the language, physical gestures and marks reveal the psychological state of a neighbourhood. That tactile memory offers a context to his paintings often being gesso-based, colour worked into the wet ground in the traditional Italian mode whilst depicting indecipherable marks which suggest Japanese calligraphy combined with ancient hieroglyphs. The impasto nature of the scumbling and dyeing, the gesso being laid back over the top of the dripping residue of a wax paper monoprint, all combine to transmit raw urban energy held in balance by a sensitive feel for colour.
Carbon-flame blues and iron-rich earthy browns feed into the work from Parlá’s study of 11th century Bizenyaki ceramics alongside experimentations with Japanese Sumi inks and brushes. Arabic script has influenced the work more recently which, to the uninitiated eye, has similarities to the graffiti tag because there’s a stylisation to the inscription which hovers on the edge of abstraction.
“The stylisation of the graffiti came out of the music this generation created. Not just hip hop, but punk funk fusion like Bad Brains, raw confrontational energy made illegible and named Wild Style and Computer Rock, which became like a new sovereign style that almost gave us a new nationality, poor kids from immigrant families.”
The tension between the graphic qualities of linear inscription and the sensual materiality of paint finds an echo then in the cross-fertilisation at the heart of street music. Into break-dancing from his early teens, Parlá was also interested in how some of those moves began to cross over into modern ballet compositions. This runs parallel to a tension between intellectual cultural history and intuitive emotional expression enacted in an artist like Twombly’s paintings, where fragmentation threatens to throw the composition off-centre and out of balance and yet somehow control is retained.
“To talk about balance I have to talk about photography. We used to have those little 110 cameras and the way you cropped it in the viewfinder became the way I learned how to do my compositions. And it was almost through the eye of my brother Rey who was the photographer. I’d do the paintings, Rey was always the documenter – he was the first guy in Miami in the Eighties to collect street photos and put them in albums. So I started to think of the studio paintings from the standpoint of fragments that you would document through photography. You always knew that whenever you did something on a wall you couldn’t keep it, it was going to disappear one way or another – some guy would come and cross you out, the city would erase you or it would just fade away from the natural sun and rain. So it wouldn’t continue to exist in other words without photography.”
So anything still out there? One wall piece survives in Miami, a 1987 composition for Mother’s Day, which triggers distinct memories of a police dog chase, a hole in the wall to escape into a parking lot and return through later that night to finish off the work. A 20-year-old mnemonic to a tough night in the city and one perhaps that won’t need to be translated into a studio painting, until it’s finally absorbed by the street.
Ben Jones, June 2008