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One of the most exciting working contemporary artists, José Parla is best known for his graffiti-inspired abstract expressionist style Parlá’s varied body of work references key moments in Contemporary art history, namely Abstract Expressionism, as well as his own non-traditional origins as a humble graffiti writer in the 1980s.
Parlá’s artistic career began at the age of just 10 years old, when he began painting walls in his hometown. Influenced by the burgeoning hip-hop scene of the day, Parlá would sign his artworks, which he created in situ, with the tag ‘Ease’. In 1986, Parlá and a few fellow graffiti writers founded the graffiti crews IKOA – or ‘International Kings of Art’ – and VIP – or ‘Vandals in Power’.
At the age of 16, Parlá received a prominent scholarship which enabled him to study at the Savannah College of Art & Design in the southern American city of Atlanta, Georgia. Upon completion of his first degree in art, Parlá returned to Miami where he continued to study advanced painting at the New World School of the Arts. Whilst at the New World School, he studied under Mel Alexenberg – a prominent American-Israeli artist known for his experimentations with technology and so-called ‘participatory’ art.
Whilst a student in Atlanta, Parlá began to exhibit prints and paintings In various solo exhibitions in the city. His first major solo exhibition appearance took place in 2006 at Art Basel Miami Beach, and was entitled Cityscapes. Parlá’s early works during this period, such as the 2006 sculpture Alphabet, were characterised by their experimentation with tactile media, such as clay and ceramics, into the wet surface of which he would inscribe long, complex and eminently calligraphic graffiti tags. These palimpsestic works, which make use of the materials and methods used in architectural construction as well as traditional art, were part of the artist’s wider interest in both the texture of cities and the so-called ‘urban fabric’: tangible themes he continues to grapple with today.
Throughout the remainder of the ‘00s, Parlá’s work began to move away from such small-scale paintings, each of which entertain an intimate relationship to movement and lyricism, and even closer towards the surfaces of the city and the depiction of the memory with which they are inscribed.
2012 saw Parlá complete the large-scale painting, Gesture Performing Dance, Dancing Performing Gesture; measuring 37 feet long by 7 feet, the work adorns the side of The Brooklyn Academy Of Music in the artist’s adoptive home of New York. Later in the same year, Parlá achieved breakthrough success with Wrinkles Of The City: Havana, a large-scale collaboration with notable French street artist, photographer and documentary filmmaker, JR. The pair worked on the multi-form piece as part of the Havana Biennale, photographing around 25 older Cubans who had lived through the country’s revolution in 1953-1959 and pasting their profiles onto a number of buildings in the city; Parlá’s signature calligraphy accompanied the portraits, ascribing a dream-like texture to the city’s dilapidated urban surfaces.
In 2013, Parlá was invited to make an artwork for the lobby of One World Trade Center in New York City.
Parlá’s 2013 mural ONE: Union Of The Senses is displayed in the lobby of One World Trade Center in Manhattan, New York City. Commissioned in 2014, it was finally completed and installed in 2015; 90 feet in width and 15 feet high, it is believed to be the largest painting in New York City, and given its positioning at the entrance oof the building is seen by an estimated 20,000 people each day. The large-format work took over 8 months to create and makes use of a Parlá’s dynamic calligraphy, as well as a wide variety of bright colours, each added to the canvas in a gestural mode reminiscent of American Abstract Expressionism and the likes of Jackson Pollock. Parlá himself has dubbed it as an ‘almost acrobatic’ work, with some of the strokes created by jumping off a stepladder.
Despite his formal artistic training, Parlá continues to cite the ‘do it yourself’ ethos of hip-hop culture, as well as the movement’s inherently social relationship to both people and the built environment as an enduring influence on his experimental creative process.
Beyond the world of graffiti, Parlá’s work owes debt to the semi-abstract paintings of Gerhard Richter, the abstract expressionist work of Jackson Pollock and the multi-layered, palimpsestic paintings produced by pioneering American artist Cy Twombly during the 1950s. Some have likened his murals to abstracted versions of those produced by Mexican painter Diego Rivera.
Parlá’s œuvre is testament to the artist’s keen interest in gestural form and the tactile language of calligraphy: two precepts of the graffiti art scene within which he first achieved exposure as an artist. Commenting on the dynamic substance of his artistic practice, Parlá once commented, ‘what I’m trying to do is find unison between colours, textures, and a flow […] there’s this dance, this performative aspect of my work’. Despite working mostly in paint, Parlá has also been known to work with other media, such as photography and ceramics.
Some have identified Parlá’s work as being closely related to the practice of ‘psychogeography’: first coined in 1955 by French writer, theoretician and founder of the Situationist movement Guy Debord, psychogeography describes creative practices that explore the relationship between the geographical environment, personal and collective consciousness, behaviour, and emotion. In a similar vein, It’s Yours (2020), one of Parlá’s latest exhibitions, addresses naggingly present societal and urban issues, such as gentrification and structural racism, with each painting in the abstract series referencing a different aspect of life in the New York City borough of the Bronx.
In addition to his illustrious career as a visual artist, Parlá has dabbled in the world of documentary filmmaking. For the Wrinkles Of The City: Havana project, Parlá collaboration with secretive French artist JR saw the pair co-direct a documentary film of the same name. A portrait of the Cuban capital – in both senses of the word – the film examined the process behind the artistic duo’s artistic project, probing the relationship between art, the built environment, and personal and collective history in the process. Wrinkles Of The City: Havana was awarded the Grand Prize for Best Documentary Short and the Best U.S. Premiere Documentary Short at the 2013 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, USA.
Parlá’s work remains some of the most sought-after (and best value-for-money) on the Contemporary Art Market. In 2019, a record price for the artist’s work was realised when the painting Brothers Back To Back (2006), part of the Cityscapes series, sold for $172, 504 at Artcurial Auctions in Paris.