Get us in your inbox

Search

Brooklyn artist José Parlá talks about his recent work

The Cuban-American artist talks about his interests in the depredations of the past and his hopes for the future

Written by
Paul Laster
Advertising

José Parlá is an art-world sensation, thanks to commissions for One World Trade Center, Barclays Center and the Standard High Line Hotel. His work has the look of old graffiti walls, like you might find in Havana—a reflection of his Cuban-American heritage. Time Out New York spoke with him about his career and current two-gallery show of new paintings, “Surface Body/Action Space,” at Mary Boone and Bryce Wolkowitz galleries.

© José Parlá

Gesture Performing Dance, Dance Performing Gesture, 2012, the Brooklyn Academy of Music

“I was commissioned to do a piece for the lobby of the new BAM Fisher theater and proposed a painting about performance, gesture and dance. The 7-by-37-foot painting evokes the history of BAM and of the neighborhood. It’s like a sideway sunset stretching from BAM to the East River with a lot of calligraphic style and color. The lines move quickly across the surface through dense fields of yellows, reds and rustic deterioration.”
© José Parlá

Wrinkles of the City, 2012, Havana, Cuba

“When [graffiti artist] JR and I were invited to submit a proposal for the 2012 Havana Biennial, we decided to expand upon a street mural project that JR had already done in Spain and China. We made photographic enlargements of elderly folks who had lived through the revolution, which I then hand painted on site. Over the next few months, we made 11 murals around Havana and simultaneously produced a film and a book as part of the project.”
Advertising
© José Parlá

Diary of Brooklyn, 2013, Jose Parla painting at the Barclays Center, Brooklyn

“Curator Sarah Lewis and a committee that included Jay-Z and Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman chose me for this commission to create an artwork for the entrance of the Barclays Center. My 10-by-70-foot painting is dedicated to Brooklyn and inspired by a James Agee story about the borough. He wrote about the poetic graffiti on the walls of Bay Ridge and about Bed-Stuy’s affluent African-American culture. I considered how one would write a diary about the borough today and included lyrics by Brooklyn rappers and the names of Brooklyn artists, past and present. I chose a blue and white palette to bring the blue sky with white clouds into the space, to make it bright and inviting.”
© José Parlá

Nature of Language, 2013, Hunt Library at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC

“The architecture firm Snohetta designed this new library for North Carolina State University, and they approached me to create this 12-by-12 foot mural for the interior because they felt that the building needed something warm and tactile created by an artist’s hand. The piece is about nature of language and I imagined it as this sort of abstract memory. I call it a linguistic landscape, moving from top to bottom starting with thin strokes that represent linear storytelling, then getting thicker, broader and wider on the way down until the calligraphy becomes a sea of language.”
Advertising
© José Parlá

Haru Ichiban First Wind of Spring/Through the Tokyo Alleyways—Her Voice Sings, 2013

“In Japan, Haru Ichiban refers to the first wind of spring. You can actually hear its whistling in Tokyo. To hear the first wind and see the first cherry blossoms is a beautiful experience: The city goes from dark gray winter to colorful spring very fast. I tried to visually match that speed in this 8-by-45-foot painting inspired by day and night—the blossoming flowers of Tokyo and its bright neon lights.”
© José Parlá

ONE: Union of the Senses, 2014, One World Trade Center, Manhattan

“The commission in Japan prepared me for the One WTC painting. I’d moved away from my more rustic palette and fallen for vibrant colors. When I was chosen to paint the building’s South Lobby, I said, “Let’s do the whole wall!” It’s 15-by-90-feet, and I had no idea of what I’d do. It was such a massive responsibility. The only thing that I did know going in was that piece should be about love and should be colorful. I bought the best paints I could get and just started working. I wanted it to feel free. I began to write down my feelings about the piece as it was developing, and one day, I realized that I had hit upon a union of the senses—I was seeing it, feeling it, tasting it, smelling it and hearing it. That’s how I came up with the title. This country is made up of all of the world’s people, who become one, and New York City is its massive melting pot. The mural is about this unity.”
Advertising
© José Parlá

High Museum, Atlanta, in relationship to Wifredo Lam, 2014

“The High Museum was mounting a show of work by Cuban modernist Wifredo Lam (1902–1982) and wanted to create a visual conversation between a contemporary artist and one of his paintings. The exhibition started with a solo show of my sculptures and then segued into the engagement with Lam, using an 8-by-48-foot landscape I’d made in Europe and his painting, The Jungle (1943). It was a great honor for me, because if you’re a Cuban kid learning about the arts, Lam is the first guy you learn about, followed by Picasso, who was his great friend.”
© José Parlá

Segmented Realities, 2015, the Standard High Line, Manhattan

“I wanted to create sculptures related to my painting, which is largely about the surface of walls and the whole psycho-geographical nature of them—what it means to show decay and neglect. I began this series for the High Museum show and recently showed these works at the Havana Biennial, placing them along the sea wall that divides the city from the ocean. I thought of it as a backwards migration, from the U.S. to Cuba instead of the other way around. I created these double-sided sculptures where one side references Miami, New York and Puerto Rico—places where I’ve lived—and the other side represents Havana. It was inspired by the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened to coincide with the talks between President Obama and Raul Castro that normalized relations between Cuba and the U.S. The series is to change, and the work at the Standard continues the story.”

Advertising
© José Parlá

Nuevo Rumbo (New Path), 2015

“The title of this painting has a double meaning of both being a new path and creating one path. It deals with the history of the U.S. and Cuba, from colonial times to the 1959 revolution—the years of reform, socialism and communism—then on to normalization between the two countries under Raul Castro and, finally, to the hope for future possibilities.”
© José Parlá

El Camino de Neptuno (Neptune's Way), 2015

“El Camino de Neptuno is the name of my favorite avenue in Havana. It’s an artery that runs from old Havana to the Havana University. It’s a typical downtown street, always busy with shops on both sides—record stores, ice cream stands, cafés and shops—mechanics everywhere and kids in the streets. I wanted to make a painting that captured the energy of the place. You can feel this kind of gravitation and equilibrium, as well as dark places and peeling paint with this palette of mustard, green and bright yellow. It’s an abstract painting, but it’s based on reality.”

See the exhibition

  • Art

A Miami native whose parents fled Cuba for Florida, Parla has enjoyed a rapid rise thanks to his adept update on Neo-Expressionist aesthetics. His compositions recall ancient graffiti-incised walls that have been repeatedly painted and plastered over, name-checking not only the likes of Jackson Pollock but also 1950s Affichistes like Mimmo Rotella, whose work appropriated the accidental beauty of peeling advertising posters.

Recommended
    You may also like
      Advertising