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Cuban-American History Surfaces in José Parlá’s Paintings

The artist's newest exhibit 'Surface Body/Action Space' is split between two NY galleries.
September 12, 2015, 5:30pm
José Parlá in studio. Photo by Rey Parlá, 2015, Brooklyn, New York.​

In the art of Jose Parlá, layers of splashed meaning and collaged personal experience stack up on each other like decayed walls in old colonial buildings in Latin American countries. It’s those walls—of government buildings, churches, in urban homes painted in rich hues, stuccoed with layers of time—that crack in intense heat and peel to reveal their personalities and the demarcation of time that informs Parlá’s paintings.


This symbolism is a running current in the Miami-born, Cuban-American artist whose canvases over time were influenced by a youth dedicated to graffiti and his own hyphenated identity having being raised in Puerto Rico and the United States. As an art student, he attended Georgia’s Savannah College of Art and Design and the New World School of the Arts in Miami. Today, the 42-year-old artist is best known for abstract, expressionistic paintings that reflect on personal and political timelines.

Born to Cuban exiles, many of his large-scale canvases have been a reflection of an individual probing the complexities of migration, family heritage, and the strained political relationship between the US and Cuba. Earlier this summer, Parlá exhibited at the Havana Biennial and in 2012 Parlá traveled with the artist, JR, to translate the Wrinkles of the City project in Havana, wheatpasting huge portraits of 25 senior citizens who had lived through the Cuban Revolution on the distressed city walls.

Parallel and Perpendicular, 2015, 5 x 9 feet, acrylic, ink, enamel and plaster on canvas

Translated in abstraction to paint on canvas, the nuanced details of Parlá’s personal experience have made the meanings of his works accessible to large audiences. The virtue of the artist acting as a vessel for a greater public dialogue is what Parlá’s work has tapped into. A true indication of this is in his success in garnering high profile art commissions.

The same year Parlá worked with JR in Cuba, the Brooklyn-based artist was commissioned to paint a 37-foot collage, acrylic, oil, ink, plaster and enamel mural for the lobby of the Brooklyn Academy of Music titled, ''Gesture Performing Dance, Dance Performing Gesture,” followed by a 2013 commission (at the insistence of Jay-Z) to paint the lobby of Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. The 70-foot mural is a labyrinth of painted words like “immigration” and “Brooklyn.”


But the real acclaim for Parlá’s energetic works came along in the highly competitive and high paying commission for a 90-foot painting for the World Trade Center lobby titled, ONE: Union of the Senses. It is a symbol for diversity and unity in powerful fits of paint that some 20,000 visitors see daily.

San Lazaro y Genios, Segmented Realities (2015)

Parlá’s work tends to transition between art for the public and art as a transference of the personal. His latest exhibit, Surface Body/Action Space, is a major coup to his ability tie both body of works together. As an art experience split between the Bryce Wolkowitz and Mary Boone galleries, Parlá’s iconic large panels will be displayed alongside his Segmented Realities (2015) reconstructed sculptures of wall fragments made with patina, tarnish, and decay symbolic to communities in Havana, San Juan, and Miami.

It seems as though world events have caught up to make Parlá’s work credible, authentic, and necessary. The timeliness of Parlá’s work is acutely specific, those homages to a forbidden island country, the complexities of access, the questions of identity. On July 20, Cuba and the United States officially restored diplomatic relations. It is the dawn of a great unknown. We are particularly anticipatory as a country to look at Parla’s work and see the US and the Cuban complexities individually and at odds with each other, but also intrinsically linked through time. For Surface Body/Action Space, Parlá was inspired by Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s book, Life on the Hyphen. The artist explores “the idea of erasing the hyphen between Cuban-American.”


Scheduled in accordance with the Surface Body/Action Space opening, Parlá granted The Creators Project a few hours of his time to walk through and discuss the inspiration for his exhibition. We visited his Boerum Hill studio one afternoon in late August. At the entrance of his studio are a handful of framed photos of Havana street scenes that Parlá has taken through the years. These photos are the basis and inspiration for Surface Body/Action Space. You can see the collaged history and color therapy in monotone grays, burgundy, mint green, and yellow as the lineage for the larger-than-life painted panels.

Photographed by the artist in 2011, Broken Language - Haunch of Venison catalog

Here are snippets from the interview and art tour in the artist's own words:

“The smaller pieces are really about fragments and the composition becomes more compact because it is imagining painting through the viewfinder of a camera where you are just sectioning off a part of a place. It’s more like segmented reality or memory documents. Those kind of gestures are inspired by the way we look at the world by documenting the world through the camera. This one is titled Solidarity and it actually has the word inside written in Spanish. It is based on textures and colors from places I have visited, working from memory really automatically. The colors are samples from a photograph of a real place.”

“Imagine like a giant chunk of the wall came off and revealed the history. I design the size before I start painting. It’s not just random sizes. Bryce’s is specifically like action. You will see a lot more of the gestural mark. At Mary’s, if there is gestural mark it's very precise and more about space. The works will mirror each other but purposefully. The works are the same size [at each gallery] and will register as windows.” 

Tomando Cafe con El Abakua

Habana y Cuarteles

“This is Habana y Cuarteles. I am really into intersections, crossroads. So many things happen at crossroads. This is a memory document of that particular location in Havana. A lot of my pieces are psycho-geographical. How would you explain a place visually? A lot of it is ephemeral. When you come back 10 years later, a place has changed. A photograph is not as tangible as a painting. So I started imagining a deeper sensibility through painting to document the place.” 

“In Capricious Mapping. It’s really erratic, gestural emotion, really haptic energy and layers, almost like confusion. It spirals and then you find some kind of peace on this top layer but the madness is still going behind it. It’s almost being woven together between Surface Body/Action Space. This painting really describes that really well. I feel like when I look at this painting I feel like it’s round like the planet full of gases, energy, and light.”

Surface Body / Action Space  is on display at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea, New York through October 31st.


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