If Cy Twombly or Jackson Pollock grew up brandishing spray paint cans under the cloak of night, their work would probably look a lot like José Parlá’s. Inspired largely by his roots in Miami’s graffiti scene and travels around the world, Parlá’s work is a contemporary take on abstract expressionism. Highly personal, emotive, intricate and labour intensive, his trademark style and subject matter bring out the history and beauty of decaying city walls. We caught up with the Brooklyn-based artist as he was preparing to unveil his latest body of work, titled Walls, Diaries, and Paintings, at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York City.
What is it you find most inspiring about city walls?
José: I grew up painting on walls. It was one of my passions. I was already into art and drawing, like most kids, but when I returned to Miami — my family moved to Puerto Rico when I was a kid — it was the very early days of what was going on in the U.S. with hip hop culture coming down from New York. I saw it spreading everywhere at that time. It was about 1982 or 1983. I was turning 10 years old and all around the neighbourhood there was art on the walls. My classmates were painting and showing me where to go [to do it], and we were going out and painting at night. So I was always inspired to paint on walls during that period of my life.
Once that was the inspiration, I was always looking at walls, so I carried a camera all the time. It was just as important to document the walls that we were painting as [to paint] them. At the same time that I was taking photographs of the pieces on walls — like the traditional old school graffiti that we were doing — I was also taking photographs of the buildings that we were painting, or the train yards. The art of the walls I saw then was really deteriorated, or rusted, or the paint had chipped, or there were parts of the walls where people had painted over each other for years. Sometimes I could see that sort of history of the wall, and that always interested me as a language, a dialogue of voices in the street. I started to see that there was a birth, a death, and a rebirth going on. People in the street communicate indirectly via the walls. Sort of a sporadic germination of history that was taking place on the walls — a random process of life, death and rebirth. And that became, eventually, my subject matter.
I’ve also heard you refer to walls as the voice of the people.
José: I think it’s always been like that. If you go back into history, back to the cave paintings, they are some of the earliest recordings of civilization. How people documented themselves first was on cave walls. Obviously, hieroglyphics in Egypt. Throughout history, people have documented themselves through some kind of writing form or another. I think that was just a way for me to find some historical point of view of people’s voices on walls and a way for me to find some kind of comfort.
Can I get you to take me through the process of producing a painting?
José: When I’m traveling, I always carry a camera to document the city, not just walls, but taking photos of anything I find interesting, people or landscapes and cityscapes. When I’m back in the studio I start to look at the photos and think about what I’ve been through during that trip or what I’m going through in my life, and I start to combine all of it as a journal, so the paintings have always been these journals for me.
I like to combine old posters that I rip down, chunks of walls, tiles, and found objects that are on walls in the places I visit and around New York. Then I incorporate and collage them into the paintings. This gives me a lot of different points of departure.
To take you through that a little bit closer, I’m using techniques that I incorporated into painting by experimenting throughout many years, of seeing what would happen if I mixed this with that. And then, you know, thinking about the painters of the past from the Renaissance throughout the 20th century, imagining how they applied paint to the canvas. I use new invented markers that I make at home or I combine spray paint with plaster, and plaster with gel medium. And then the collage is ripped and torn as if it’s something that’s happening outside in the city already. To do that, I try to imagine how it would happen. So I attempt to get into a character, as if I was someone who just walked by and ripped something off the wall or wrote something instantaneously. Or if I was someone who was writing something on the wall that needed to get a message across. Or somebody who just felt like defacing something out of anger.
So when you’re in the studio, a lot of this is improvised?
José: A lot of work is improvised. There’s a certain dialogue and language that I already understand about my work by doing this. So, as much as I can say it’s spontaneous, there are also plans to be spontaneous. There are many things I know I’m going to do to the painting. Then there are things I don’t think about that deeply, it’s just moving quickly through, the forward thrust of the gesture is what counts.
How do you keep the energy up on a day-to-day basis in the studio or get through creative roadblocks?
José: Coffee [laughs]. No, once you hit a block there’s nothing you can do except just wait. The thing is, I like to work on many paintings at once. It’s not just one piece, then I hit a block, and then I can’t move on. If I hit a block with one painting, most of the time I can turn to another painting and keep going. The idea is that one painting teaches me about the next one.
It’s pretty clear that you remain true to your roots through your artwork. Is this something that’s important to you?
José: Of course it is. Graffiti is not just an art, you have to think about it like this: it’s a lifestyle. It’s a subculture that was a counterculture. It came out of many different things. It’s a human instinct that’s probably existed for centuries. The type of style I come from, coming out of New York City, Miami, it’s the voice of the ghetto, you could say. It strongly comes from street culture — young people needing to figure themselves out culturally. It came out of the 70s and 80s when there were major economic cutbacks in the school system. They said there wasn’t enough money to advocate more culture in the schools, like more art, dance, or music classes. When all that was cut back, I feel that young people still needed to express their feelings and they took it upon themselves to invent art. So, graffiti art, break dancing, and different styles of punk rock that came out, or skate culture, a lot of the counterculture that was coming out, I think was just something that people needed to do. If you look at it, it was a whole subculture of art that was controlled by youth. And the youth rejected anything that had the parents telling them what the art should be like. Or the schools telling them what the art should be like, and the more they were told what to do, the more the artwork became rebellious and more self-sustained within a certain code and language.
Graffiti, to me, is not just a thing that you can say, “Oh graffiti, here it is. Art!” It came from a subculture; it came from a need. It was socioeconomic, political. Then it spread throughout the whole United States and the world at the same time. I feel like I was a part of the early days of that. If you count me in as coming in the 80s, it was still early because it was before the major stream of books on the subject were published that were inspired by The Faith of Graffiti and Subway Art. It was before the internet, it was before a lot of those things.
There was a rite of passage to be a part of it. I had to study and prove myself. In essence, you had to make strong work to get into the strongest groups that had the better style. Whether you were a guy that was painting, a rapper, a skater, whatever you were doing. Nowadays, everyone’s joining in quickly. That’s what I mean. Is it important to me? It was a huge part of life since I was a kid, so I think the roots will always coexist with something new that I’m bringing in through my work.
Tell me about your upcoming show Walls, Diaries and Paintings.
José: Walls, Diaries and Paintings is opening on March Third at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery. I’ve been working on it for a year so it’s all new artwork. Never been seen before. I wanted to distinguish three different steps to my work and to the paintings. Paintings that are almost photorealistic that resemble walls. Paintings that are diaristic in their nature because I’m keeping journals in these sort of palimpsestic paintings in black and white where the text is layered and camouflaged and rendered illegible, almost in the way that a diary is private and you’re not allowed to read someone’s diary. And paintings where the images are combining the walls, the diaries and abstraction in painting. It’s contemporary abstraction that deals with a rhythm and an energy that’s very personal to my life experience. The work is combining all those aspects. Together with that, we’re producing a book by the same title, Walls, Diaries and Paintings, that’s edited by German publication house, Hatje Cantz.
I’m sure a lot of artists are inspired by your work. What advice would you give them?
José: Work harder than you think you have to. Define yourself. Find your own place in history. Don’t copy other artists. And just be as original as possible.
Finally, what’s your personal definition of success?
José: To be surrounded by the people you love and the people that love you. That’s success.
This article was originally published in Spring 2011 issue of The Block.