José Parlá’s charged abstraction has a language of its own. The artist’s physically intense work translates his lived autobiography into grand histories with a remarkable capacity to share universal narratives written in his abstract calligraphic style and woven into the complex textured surfaces of his works.
Photos by James Chororos
Parlá’s paintings study the surface and memory of urban spaces. Driven by a desire to engage people outside of the gallery in his practice, Parlá is known for large scale public works across the globe including his permanent painting, One Union of the Senses in New York City’s One World Trade Center; Amistad America, a permanent mural at the University of Texas at Austin; and Nature of Language, commissioned by North Carolina State University and architecture firm Snøhetta. Parlá works with a wealth of materials, techniques, and pigments, his process is relentlessly experimental and evokes abstract expressionism, as well as familiar expressions of the contemporary urban environment, such as the surfaces of decaying buildings or a peeling billboard with layers of writing and marks. His works span a range of scales in painting and sculpture and have a muted yet vigorous palette of dark greens, earthy reds, and burnt oranges. Throughout his oeuvre, Parlá’s signature stylized writing, with its roots in subway art, is painted and scratched into his works through marks that might also draw inspiration from Japanese and Arabic calligraphy; it is reminiscent of the pages of a diary or an ancient script and relates mark-making with narrative as a visual language.
All of Parlá’s work is politically engaged. The repeated symbolism of walls represents boundaries that are public, personal, and political, particularly concerning his heritage as a Cuban American. Parlá cites the fall of the Iron Curtain as a crucial moment in his own life, as it made many Cuban people question the future of the country in the context of their revolutionary socialist history. Parlá’s permanent installation series, Segmented Realities, is made up of monoliths that appear like large rocks or preserved sections of the Berlin Wall, doused in the artist’s signature swathes of abstract, faded color and collage. Parlá joins together grand international narratives and their effect on individual lives for Exile & The Kingdom.
Parlá’s process is highly performative and draws from the power of music and dance. Feeding on traditional Cuban rhythms and hip-hop music, Parlá leaps, jumps and climbs across his works, leaving the imprint of his body in layers of thick textured color. Having grown up as a dancer, the poetic athleticism of his process symbolizes the power of art and wider global subculture. He explains that growing up in 1980s Miami in a multicultural and often violent environment, music – and hip-hop in particular – were a unifying force. With the same desire to inspire a sense of togetherness, Parlá’s physical mark-making seethes with the weight of lived experience and, like bodily relics of time and place, exposes the sublime capacities of tireless texture and the stories it allows an artist to show and tell.