“For most of my life,” writes José Parlá, “I have experienced being in transition and migration.” As he moves through a layered world of multiple cultures and geographies, Parlá’s intensively textured works move between spaces and mediums: they encompass painting and sculpture, wall fragments brought inside gallery spaces or installed in public, and the polymorphous influence of the underground art scene of the 1980s. In the past several years, Parlá has written his memory- and space-inflected aesthetic into the physical spaces and buildings of New York City, with permanent murals at One World Trade Center, Barclays Center, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. 2015 saw his first museum solo exhibition at the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta; his second appearance at the Havana Biennial in the spring; and a major show of paintings and sculptural works at Bryce Wolkowitz and Mary Boone galleries in the fall. On a one-day trip from Los Angeles near year’s end, Parlá welcomed Laila Pedro to his Brooklyn studio to reflect on his trajectory, share work in progress, and talk about the evolution of his expansive practice.
Laila Pedro (Rail): Your personal and artistic itinerary has always had a very international, multicultural turn—you’re drawing from and incorporating a lot of influences.
Jose Parlá: Over the years, I have been interested in connecting my environment and history to what I do as an artist. That interest inspires moving and traveling, so that I can see how different people behave and what other places are like. My own upbringing as a kid was multicultural—I grew up in Puerto Rico and Miami and have Cuban roots. Knowing that the people of Cuba are made up of a large melting pot of cultures is the DNA driving the desire for diversity in what I do. As a teenager I lived in very diverse neighborhoods in Miami, with a mix of African American, Jamaican, Colombian, Nicaraguan, Cuban, and other Latin American cultures. In 1990, I went to college in Savannah, at Savannah College of Art and Design [SCAD], where I was one of the only Spanish-speaking students. I searched for common ground and ended up making all kinds of friends from all over the world before moving to Atlanta and then to New York. My early years of development as an artist influenced my itinerary of constant movement.
Rail: Did you move to Brooklyn right away?
Parlá: I moved to the Bronx for the first two years, and then to Brooklyn, where I’ve been for nearly twenty years. New York was the base for my first travels—to Europe and Asia—and it was also from New York that I first visited Cuba and my family there. Moving to New York in the mid-late ’90s was great because it was the beginning of an era that was becoming digital. To witness globalization and the return to urbanized lifestyles for people meant that, as an artist, I was also a part of that development. Between 1995 and the early 2000s I was able to travel and also exhibit in London, Tokyo and other cities in Japan, as well as Sydney, Melbourne, San Juan, Los Angeles, Istanbul, Paris, and other places. I saw the art, music, design, and architecture all start to build on the energy of the path the underground had paved. Even Havana, which is analogue and was not—and still is not—very connected to the internet, was engaging the world with art and culture.
Rail: It’s an interesting moment to be going back and forth.
Parlá: It is an interesting moment; for me, it’s also interesting to see people that are going for the first time and want to return and be involved in Cuba’s future. I started going in the late ’90s, and I have seen so many interesting things unfold. In 2012 I went with my friend, the artist JR, to work on a truly special project, The Wrinkles of the City, Havana Cuba. It was a large-scale mural collaboration that also included a film and a book component. To be able work in the public sphere in Cuba really expanded my practice and changed my life.
Rail: That was one of the first pieces that got me really interested in the greater scope of your work, beyond the paintings.
Parlá: That was an epic time for me because it was the first time I really worked in Cuba. We interviewed twenty-five elderly folks on the streets of the city and created dozens of murals dedicated to their stories. Growing up I never had the opportunity to travel to Cuba—it was not allowed—and because of that I never met my grandparents on either side of my family. Working on this project and getting to know the people JR and I interviewed was like meeting my grandparents; or, at least, I felt connected to the collective consciousness of their era.
This project made many collaborative situations possible: people want to be involved and want to know about public art. In Cuba there is no advertising on walls; what is common are billboards with political propaganda. Some people said to me that they thought we were making murals of heroes of the revolution, or that we were going to paint political slogans, and I would say “Look, these are your neighbors!”
Rail: How did that project come together?
Parlá: The Havana Biennial invited JR to participate; one day, having lunch at JR’s studio, my brother Rey suggested that we could do a trade of each other’s work. We felt that our work had a lot in common and that the collaboration was an organic one that could be worked onto the surfaces of the textured and historical walls of Havana.
The project encompassed many elements; we both love to document everything, so it grew from making murals to making a film about two artists collaborating, and showing the stories of the Cuban people who had lived more than half a century and had seen Cuba before and since the revolution. And, although we had been invited and had plenty of autonomy, we were careful, too. We didn’t have all the permits for filming, so we were constantly surprised that we weren’t getting into trouble.
After months of preparations—producing the murals, editing a movie and a book—we showed the film in Miami for the first time during Art Basel Miami Beach 2012. Along with all the international art-world people, and the local Cuban people who had never been to Cuba before, the audience included members of the Cuban Ministry of Culture. And it was emotional—a great moment.
Rail: Working without permits, interviewing strangers on the street—do you think some of that willingness to just do what you want to do stems from your early practice? That seems like what the approach to painting walls in the ’80s would be, no? Just going for it.
Parlá: That project definitely had the spirit of the early-’80s guerrilla art style, but the difference was that we were doing it all in the daytime. Havana as a city feels somewhat like the first time I ever came to the Bronx in the ’80s when it was kind of wild, except that Havana doesn’t have the same crime elements—it’s a raw place full of exciting things changing and happening, and there is crime, but not the way you would remember New York in those days.
The sense of community is like nowhere else in the world. The way that we work, we were always on ladders, so we had to find people who had electric trucks with lifts, so we could get higher. There was an element of always finding a solution to tons of problems that would arise every single day. If a building was falling down, we had to tie the wall with a rope so it wouldn’t fall on us, or we would be working and walls would hit our heads. Everything is kind of raw, so it did feel like when I used to go paint walls in Miami or in New York in the ’80s, and the ’90s, illegally—you were in situations where you were climbing stuff, and it was dirty, and it was grimy. It’s different from the studio—when you’re working in the daytime, in public, a lot of people walking by want to talk and ask you questions while you’re painting, and that interaction is priceless; their curiosity feeds you.
Rail: So you’re bringing the community into the work.
Parlá: We brought the community into this project with every single piece, literally. The whole feeling of the project was of a major collaboration with the public. There was interaction on many levels throughout our process. We would invite kids to see our books and photos and to mix paint and assist us in pasting JR’s photos, or to learn how to paint with me. We met local Cuban rock climbers who taught us to hang from ropes to paint the larger murals.
Rail: In addition to the lived experience in present-day Havana, you are also in conversation with Cuban art history—specifically with the legacy of the seminal painter Wifredo Lam—in your first solo museum show at the High Museum in Atlanta. How did you interact with his work in that context?
Parlá: Michael Rooks, the curator of contemporary art at the High Museum, invited me to participate in a solo show that would be in dialogue with the concurrent retrospective of Lam. I decided to make both paintings and sculptures, and in the paintings I worked with large geometric lines, extensions of three-dimensional letters, or objects that played on the surreal, elongated, figurative images in Lam’s work that sometimes depict Yoruba deities like Eleguá, Yemayá or Changó. The titles of my works in the show are in the Lucumi Yoruba language, and many deal with music, religion, and the sea—El Camino de Neptuno, for example.
Rail: This spring, you returned to the Havana Biennial—can you tell me a bit about the experience of creating Detrás del Muro?
Parlá: For the Detrás del Muro project I made four new sculptures, painted on both sides, that reflected city intersections between Miami, Havana, New York, and San Juan. These are inspired by places significant to my upbringing and my family’s migration. The sculptures were exhibited at the Antonio Maceo plaza on the Malecón, the famous sea wall in Havana, and Juanito Delgado curated it.
Rail: Then in the fall, you had the show Surface Body/Action Space. In Cuba you had one kind of community dialogue; that show it seemed like you were again referencing history and art history, right? We were talking earlier about Cy Twombly; what are some other historical influences for you?
Parlá: There’s a piece called Nuevo Rumbo (2015) that was in Mary Boone’s gallery. It is a 6 × 24-foot landscape, diptych painting. In that one I wanted to do two things—one was talk about what’s going on with the history of Cuba and the United States. Two, I wanted to make connections to historical landscape painting. The work is very tumultuous; it’s made of layers and layers, and you can really dig in. In my imagination, it deals with history going back to indigenous and pre-Colonial times all the way through the early days of Cuban Independence to the days of World War II, the Cuban Revolution, Bay of Pigs, the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then the landscape starts to clear—which is precisely December of 2014, when President Obama announces normalizing relations. So hope starts to open up, and the composition reflects that.
At the same time, it’s a nod to the history of painting, specifically Monet—the “Water Lilies,” because I thought about the public: when they think about the “Water Lilies” they think about it as one of the big staples in painting history. I thought there is a connection and that it would be a good way to comment on the natural division between the United States and Cuba, which is the ocean and the sky. That’s why it’s those colors—the reflective blues rather than the greens of the pond of the “Water Lilies.”
Some of the sculptural pieces in the show are very much like intersections in particular places: it could be Coral Way and 87th Avenue in Miami, it could be 106th and Park in Harlem, it could be Flitcroft Street in London. It’s about particular places, particular communities, and what people do to walls. So, somebody painted over something, put a poster up and ripped it, another person came—and it’s imagining those characters. Outside of that, it also nods to other sculptors and the history of painting and sculpture, so they became like sculptural paintings. It’s kind of new for me—I was interested in doing that because it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling and the so-called end of the Cold War, which made me think of the historical significance of where we are now with the United States and Cuba. When we heard the news of the Berlin Wall falling in 1989 there was a sense that it meant Cuba would soon be changing—but it’s been twenty-five years and now it’s starting to change, so it’s another little nod to history.
I wouldn’t say that my work is abstract because there’s always so much that connects the work to history or something specific. At first you might think it’s an abstraction, but then you get closer and it’s not; it’s like a real close-up of a real wall. It could be realistic, or you could find something in it that leads you into your own path or your own story—it doesn’t necessarily have to be mine. I like to find relevance in works that have led me from past histories in my own life to something that’s new now in our present.
Rail: Bringing it back to your own history, and to finding those spots of relevance or resonance, let’s talk about the physicality—the embodied quality—of your work. You’ve talked about it feeling almost like dancing sometimes.
Parlá: When you have larger paintings and you’re on your feet all the time you are no longer just using your elbows and hands to move the paint, you’re using the full length of your body. Your arm is extended from top to bottom—you can see some of the lines are really long; some of those I really jump across the canvas, and I’m up on a ladder and I jump off the ladder, or I bring tons of texture with both hands, and I attack the canvas in a forceful way. So there is a lot of action painting in the work, which I think is necessary. The type of energy I bring to painting is unique in the sense that I grew up dancing and I love that feeling. I bring it to the paintings because it’s very much me, who I am—that physicality is important not only because of what I’m doing to the painting, but beacause of what it symbolizes.
Rail: Do you listen to music while you work?
Parlá: Sometimes, most of the time, but sometimes I have to just have silence.
Rail: Let’s go back to the question of materiality. You were showing me some of the work in progress downstairs and talking about how that process evolved a little bit; can we talk more about how you use that remaining white space on the canvas, the question of time, how you let the elements work with you?
Parlá: When I’m in the studio I don’t want to repeat what I’ve done for years; I want to try to incorporate new things, and invent new things, and play with it. You have to pay a lot of attention to what you’re doing, but you also have to spend a lot more time with it, so that you can understand new ways to work. If you’re using acrylic you’re limited to how much time you have before the acrylic dries, so you can manipulate it, so you develop a clock for it, and that clock is so internal that you just know it, you don’t have to put a timer on—it’s okay, I want to do this, I’m going to go walk away and work on this other painting—but in the back of your mind it’s pulling you towards that, like, ten minutes, fifteen minutes that you needed for it to almost dry to go and lift some paint off, or to continue the technique.
I am constantly experimenting and figuring things out, and then you make choices, where it’s like the large painting you liked—I wanted it initially to be something else, but then you look and realize that the process is more interesting than where you thought you were going. Painting sometimes becomes about not doing anything to the painting, but about watching it and then spending time just looking at it, and that is just as important as making something happen. The same thing goes for sitting on a corner in Brooklyn or any city and looking at people going by. And that is part of the work to me because you’re absorbing it, and eventually you’ll bring it back to what you do.
Rail: In the past few years you’ve been making work for large-scale architectural spaces—ONE: Union of the Senses, at One World Trade Center; Barclays Center; Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Snøhetta-designed Hunt Library in Raleigh. Has your work naturally lent itself to those kinds of spaces or have you had to develop new strategies for these more monumental contexts?
Parlá: It’s interesting, I developed the confidence to do large-scale works because that’s how I started and I trained for years around the city on large walls. When we were going around painting in the early days, you’d work with your friends to do huge things. You would do a whole train, you would do a massive wall, you knew how much time you had to do this blend of colors, and then your foreground, and your background, and your sketching, and you just knew how to work big because that’s how we taught each other to work. That’s not something you could have learned at school. I never did any large-scale painting classes at art school. That’s all stuff that was self-taught or taught between friends when we were much younger.
Then I went to school and, as you know, I was never comfortable with terms like “graffiti art,” or “street art.” Even back in the ’80s, I thought those were really lazy terms that came from people who were outside the culture, who were trying to understand the subculture but had no idea. People were writing articles in the early ’80s about what was happening out in the Bronx like they knew what was up because they’d spent one afternoon with a kid from Washington Heights. And they didn’t know what was up, but they were talking about it like they did. Then everyone else read it, including young artists who didn’t know how to really absorb that, and they believed it.
There came a point for me when the entire art form and subculture were being milked to the bone. I started to pay attention to that and I was like, “I don’t want to milk that, I want to go experimental, I want to spend time figuring it out.” I wanted it to remain grimy, like the abandoned buildings or the tunnels I explored, so I kept thinking about location and about what those environments meant; it wasn’t just a look that I was going for, but a meaning. So, the meaning: why does a painting look like a place that is deteriorated? Because the place has been neglected, there’s poverty, there’s a status in that society that is not as educated, or doesn’t have access to a certain kind of worldly understanding. I wanted to reflect that in the paintings. Not that I had a worldly understanding; I am still learning every day. But for me there was a need to reflect what I saw and how I lived. And if there was writing on the wall, and there was a poster that was torn, all that reflects the kind of anger that exists in these places and the kind of misunderstanding that is being lived. That’s what the paintings started to become about, but they were in the studio, so then I became incubated as an artist, and I wasn’t painting large-scale all of the time, but I never lost the touch of how to do large-scale pieces. And the bigger the studios got over the years—even if they were tiny for that time, they were big for me—the larger and larger I started to paint.
One of the pieces that is most important to me is titled Gemini; I did it in 2001 in reaction to the September 11th attacks. At the time it was big for me—eight feet tall by twenty feet wide—and I layered it and I layered it, and I worked on it for like, six months. It was such a cathartic piece that at the end of it I was sick. It was a crazy time to be here and it was really a kind of unhealthy situation to go through; and all the artists that I knew were all talking about it—not just the artists, but everybody. That made me want to go back into large-scale again, because I felt like there was an energy and a message that I could convey that was gestural, that was body-sized, that couldn’t be done with smaller works.
All the mural projects came about because I had done several large paintings abroad, in Japan and Canada—commissioned, public mural works—and then the Cuba project came along, which was really pretty massive. I think working with architects, you already know it’s a monumental piece, it’s a permanent piece, and it’s large-scale. You asked me if I had to adapt a little bit to do those murals—you always are adapting, when you have a certain specific thing that’s going on.
Making a mural for the World Trade Center after I had already experienced doing something personally after the September 11th attacks, I knew I didn’t want this painting to be about any of those things. I wanted it to be about the future, about the resilience of New Yorkers. I wanted it to be about that and I wanted to talk about the diversity of this city and how, even though things are not perfect, New Yorkers do tend to really respect each other and work really well together. I wanted it to be about that energy. That’s why the mural is very colorful. It wasn’t something that I planned. I started off and it was really daunting to think, “This is a massive piece, and I have total freedom—what am I going to do?”
Rail: It’s a heady thing.
Parlá: It’s massive—it’s ninety feet. It was a big responsibility. I started out painting planes of color that suggested valleys and mountains—really minimal compositions to get the colors and the blends going. Being able to step back and look at such a large piece from some distance allowed me to properly see what direction I was going in.
Rail: So the architecture of this studio facilitated the making of this art piece for another architectural space?
Parlá: Yes. If you’re on the ground level, you can see it only one way, but I had the option to see it from the mezzanine, so I had two angles. When it was a much simpler painting, I would go over here and do, like, this pink area, and come run up here, and then my eye would go, “Wow, you need something there,” and I would run back down, and do that. It was a physical workout to run around in the studio, and up and down the ladders I had set up.
And then, I can’t explain it, but it was like a kind of synesthesia—all of my senses were combining into this painting, and I had blocked the world out. It was really important to do that, and I spent almost ten months in front of this painting, back and forth, back and forth, painting, running around the studio. You’re only so small, and the mural’s so tall, so I felt I was always inside of this gigantic color field. Even though I’d look at the floor or look around the studio, that’s what was dominating the place. At one point I felt it was very psychological to be in the middle of that space. I was constantly asking myself, “What is this painting about?” And then it came to me one day. I kept jumping off the ladder. I would be on the top of the ladder and I would jump off and do like these long flourishes off the words in the paintings and lines, and I would do that so often that at one point I thought, “What am I doing?” and suddenly I wrote the word “union.” It came to me. And I was like, what is it, what is it? And I kept thinking about this feeling of synesthesia I had gotten months before. I worked really late at night, I remember. And the next morning I rode my bike back to the studio, and when I was riding my bike it came to me again: synesthesia—this feeling like I was all absorbed into it. And I started reading about it and talking about it and basically, it came to me: it was the union of the senses. And I wanted it to be that for people who would see it, for several reasons—because the world needs more unity, and the more that people have a sense of that, I think the fewer problems we’ll have. So the piece [ONE: Union of the Senses] was a big message about love and compassion—all the things that sound whimsical when you say them out loud, but that’s what was going through my mind.
Rail: When it comes from the lived experience of making the work, it’s real—you can’t really argue with that. I have one last question for you, which is: what is going on in L.A.? Can you talk about it? [Laughter].
Parlá: It happened really organically. I knew that I wanted a break after all these recent projects, that I just wanted a space to go and think. I actually began by going to London, where I thought I’d stay awhile, until I saw a friend who convinced me to go to L.A. He offered me a very interesting midcentury-modern kind of tree house and it just seemed like the perfect thing to do. It looked peaceful. I thought I’d just go there and write or read and relax—but I kept feeling like painting, and then I also started working on some sculptures and different installation ideas. I spent the first week just rummaging around nature, finding logs, painting weird things, making paintings. And then I realized it was turning into something. Another friend, an architect, who has been working in San Francisco, came to visit and we started doing these landscape pieces, onto one of the abandoned construction parts of the house that was never built, so it has these broken foundations—almost like ruins. And it all started to make perfect sense for my work: there are these pieces that are walls that are crumbling, but it’s all in nature. I’ve been adapting that into the work and I’ve been doing new paintings, and it’ll all turn into a project around this tree house. It’s new work, very different-looking work from what I’m accustomed to doing. We’ll see where it goes from here.
LAILA PEDRO is a former Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. She is a scholar and translator, and holds a PhD in French from the Graduate Center, CUNY.