by Shraddha NairMar 17, 2020
There is a sense of personal as well as collective consciousness that emanates through successive layers of paint and material media, in José Parlá’s first solo museum exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York City. The title of the show – It’s Yours, borrows from the lyrics of Bronx rapper T La Rock, signifying a locating of one’s practice within the cultural context of a community and its history. For Parlá, the title invokes a sense of reclamation that references the people of the locality, whose presence is reflected in his work as the exhibition attempts to bring the authentic back to its origin.
The Bronx, which is today seen as the subcultural epicentre of hip-hop, lies amidst efforts of gentrification, suffering at the hands of redlining policies that outline a pattern of structural racism. By situating the thematic of the exhibition in this flux, Parlá uses his practice as a reflective measure to re-assess the cultural topography of these neighbourhoods and question their ownership.
“My work is in layers, mainly because it questions history and therefore, questions what is authentic. In the exhibition It's Yours, I pay homage to my roots of having lived in the Bronx and to its influence through the elements of hip-hop culture. But the tribute is not the message; the message is to everyone's universality. The cycle of constant change continues, signified by the layering process in my paintings, which is precisely about highlighting how no condition is permanent,” says Parlá.
Born to Cuban-immigrant parents in Miami, the brothers Rey and José would move to Puerto Rico and spend most of their childhood there, before returning to Miami once again in 1974. The 70s in the United States were synonymous with the burgeoning hip-hop scene and helped locate the brothers at the very centre of this important trajectory. At times, called the sixth borough of New York, Miami shared the East-Coast heritage with its counterpart, creating a space for exchange and commonalities. Later, when Parlá finally moved to New York City, he would find himself a studio near the Bronx, the bedrock of hip-hop.
This displacement is carefully underlined in the exhibition through the showcasing of Parlá’s old sketchbooks and photos of walls that he painted as a teenager in Miami. This tracing of his roots also reveals the influences that have shaped his artistic sensibilities, from wildstyle writing and calligraphy, to urban realism and abstract expressionism. The exhibit also references the many youth programmes that are run for children of different age groups by the museum. “I wanted to connect my early work to them by showing how I started doing work, somehow mapping my journey to becoming a painter,” says Parlá. In conjunction to the paintings, the programming of the show also includes site-specific works that bridge the inside of the gallery to the city outside.
This spilling over can be further understood through Parlá’s practice of constructing palimpsest-like paintings of walls that reveal the spirit of a city through a layered approach. Manon Slome, the curator of the show and a long-term collaborator of Parlá’s, coined the term “cityscapes” to describe his practice. The current show exhibits multiple new applications of layering paint through a process of peeling, where Parlá applies paper collage underneath wet paint to create negative spaces and shed underlying colours in the form of new layers. His gestural understanding of brushstroke and form further nuances the compositions that disperse themselves into smaller narratives.
Sampling colours from his encounters with the Bronx over the last 25 years, Parlá explains his process, which starts with the photographing of details of walls, signs, and people from around the borough to finally arrive at a painting that is the outcome of looking back at these photographs and randomly juxtaposing instances with colour, for each painting. As for his fixation towards walls, and their penchant for decay, Parlá claims how, “Early on, as I painted walls, I also noticed the surroundings and cityscapes as symbols of how our times will be defined in history. What I think drew me towards abstraction in a sense is how so much of what I was seeing was deteriorated, such as old walls or abandoned buildings, that allowed me to think of space and scale differently, while also allowing me to capture what is ephemeral outdoors in the studio painting”.
Parlá’s work can be closely associated with the preservation of subcultural narratives in the transient landscape of a city, while employing a visual lexicon that remains universal.
In the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, José Parlá: It’s Yours has now been rescheduled from September 9, 2020- January 10, 2021 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York.