José Parlá (born 1973) has received critical acclaim for his works, which lie at the boundary between abstraction and calligraphy. Composed from layers of paint, gestural drawing and found ephemera, his work evokes the histories of urban environments. Parlá is a documentarian of city life. Using the backdrop of New York City and many other towns, he re-makes in paint what can appear to be photorealist fragments of what he sees in the chaos and rush of the metropolis. His paintings reflect the accumulated memories and experiences, the walls that show a place that was, but no longer is — built over, renewed in some other configuration. José Parlá paints revelations — transcriptions of the process — proof of the history of our neighborhoods. Parlá’s work shows that words, signs, and marks come to mean more; over time, in this symphony of diversity, both incongruous and in harmony, that surrounds our contemporary life. His practice originated in graffiti’s experimental and collaborative approaches during the eighties. These markings expose his drive to say or divulge the passing of time, in the moment.
Can we talk about your origins first?
My origins are come from a melting pot of cultures. First, we have the very strong and dynamic Cuban sensibility on both my parents side. My mother and father were both born in Cuba and the same for my grandparents. On my mother’s side of the family the backgrounds are both Spanish and Lebanese and my father’s Spanish and French. Regardless of the deeper roots, our family tree and diaspora is that of the Cuban story. No matter where we live in the world, the home, or space we work in, is an autonomous Cuban zone.
And where were you born?
My birthplace is Miami, Florida, United States.
Then you moved to?
My family moved to Puerto Rico where I grew up until I was 10 years old. Then returned to Miami and I’ve been moving ever since while keeping a base in Brooklyn for the past 20 years.
How did those cultures and cities influence you and your art?
My art, is influenced in part by my family background and cities I grew up and lived in, and at the same time it is the continuous travel however and search for new experiences that has shaped my vision. Inspiration for years has come from places near and far such as Japan, Turkey, UK, China, Tibet, Colombia, Mexico, Australia etc.
What do walls symbolize to you?
Walls are community boards, shelters, barriers, sculptures, paintings, abstractions.
Can you tell us about your work process?
My process is rooted in traditional painting. Photographing my experience in life and transforming those times into painting has also helped to see the world through a very personal lens. I am blessed to paint what I am living. A lot of young artist out there worry about what they are going to make and for the wrong reasons. Be honest and create work about the life you live, be fucking real with yourself and don’t worry so much to please any concept that is a gimmick for the market place, I see too much of that out there. Experiment and work a lot on your work, more than you think, you have to create so much work that you can edit or even re do over again until you get it right. This is still what I love to do. I spend a tremendous amount of time in my studio, blocking out the world and even not sleeping much until the work starts to go in the right direction. Layering the moments of ones life is important if it is going to function like a true palimpsest, a record or an interpretation. After all, we are the directors of the theatre that is our own life stage.
You say that your painting is your Diary. Can you elaborate?
A diary for me is very private. It is not just a notebook, it is where I internalize and analyze my process of living. Painting for me is cathartic so I write and layer my thoughts and continue to do so until I have rendered the paintings illegible and private. The diary paintings when exposed to people as a work or art is to be read by feeling. Reading a painting will be uniquely different for everyone and that is my way of sharing my stories. There are clues and details at times that open up a private moment or memory, but to the viewer, I say, It’s Yours!
What do layers mean to you?
When did you get interested in Calligraphy?
Calligraphy started to interest me very early because my parents had very beautiful cursive writing and penmanship. As much as I learned in school, my parents also showed me by example. I was also highly impressed by the style writing coming out of the subway arts of New York that eventually came to Miami in my early days and I became a part of the community of writers that has always had ties to New York and internationally. I say writers to mean “graffiti artist” but I don’t like that term very much as we never used it to describe what we do, or did back in those trying times when “it” was not accepted at all by any establishment. Other major impactful times that I was exposed to calligraphy that inspired me include my first trip to Istanbul in 1999 when I saw the Ottoman Calligraphy in the Mosques and also in Japanese Shinto and Buddhist Temples.
In a way you created an international human language in your paintings, Abstract but yet communicative. Do you communicate with the language via the strength and speed of the gestures?
Yes, you got it. For me it is in the gesture that the communication starts. It is as much a mark and a dance. Or a mark representative of the movement of the body. The language has a movement that invites the eye to see the gesture of the dance that is in painting. The feeling. I invite the viewer to become part of the scale of the painting.
You travel a lot, from where did you get inspired the most?
Every place is so different and I have many places to see still, but so far being in Cuba has given me endless amount of inspiration.
Can you tell us about your encounter with Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery?
My dear friend Amanda Bhalla Wilkes introduced me to Bryce Wolkowitz through our mutual friend Suitman who is a mad world traveler. Suitman and my brother Rey Parlá worked up a great and crazy project called The New Grand Tour to bring a group of us to Tibet and China in 2007-2008. The project had exhibitions as components, which we did in Beijing and Hong Kong and Bryce Wolkowitz brought it to his gallery in New York. That is when we started working together.
In Medias Res is your second exhibition and is a chronicle of your life beginning with your childhood and including your extensive travels around the world. What was you prior message?
The message is in the title of the works. They are personal but also open a window of my expression as a reflection to the viewer’s own world. Interpretation is always unique and the wall is the messenger.
How did you keep and remember all of those visual informations and created such a remarkable symphony with each of your works?
When you love what you do, you do not want to forget any detail. My team and I also work very hard to document everything.
You came to the Istanbul International Arts & Culture Festival – IST. Festival this summer of 2014. Can you tell us about your first impressions of the city?
Istanbul is absolutely amazing and stunning as a city and the people are incredibly beautiful and generous. I had first visited Istanbul in 1999 and to me the city now is much more vibrant and filled with young creative energy. I want to go back soon ! The events with Istanbul74 were so well done I was inspired to see so many bright people together participating in a cultural hub with so much history all around us. Showing our film Wrinkles of the City – Havana, Cuba together, JR and I had a great response from everyone both local and international visitors who came to the festival.
What does the streets of Istanbul signify to you, what comes out of them and what will you try to communicate within them and its people?
The streets are the voice and portrait of Istanbul. It is where you smell the coffee, the food being cooked, you hear the voices of people laughing, and the dogs barking. I want to make works that represent a beautiful and deep and also chaotic city.
What are your next projects?
The In Medias Res book will soon be released by Damiani at Standard Spa in Miami Beach during Art Basel. This is super exciting because in the book I share a survey of works dating back to my youth and move forward into the most recent projects in my life including a commission for the One World Trade Center I have just installed.