José Parlá (b. 1973) when talking about his artistic journey discusses starting from graffiti and then refining his work through aspects of Nouveau realism which then approaches abstraction as a feature of camouflage. Throughout his work he’s been conscious of social issues and views his work within an American cultural context, graffiti being a form of existential resistance against a mainstream culture that ignored or sublimated the people he grew up around.
Parlá is conscious of overlaid nature of the stylised names written on urban walls, historical layers that built up over time tell of the history of a space inhabited by a people silent within descriptions of the American Dream. Less obvious now, his work used calligraphic gestures against areas of eroding colour, lines extending in a sub-lingual ways, suggesting the bodies pleasure of tracing a curved line as a form of dance, the line as the carrier of linguistic meaning, and as a symbol of progress.
The artist often talks about the persistence of culture, and while he’s educated in Western art history, he’s reverent of the other cultures in the Americas particularly how they evolved in geographically (New York, Miami) syncretic ways as different peoples brought their own ethnic cultural backgrounds into specific areas. Thinking outwards Parlá’s fascination with how different cities developed their own urban cultures which in turn influence other cities, countries and cultures suggests that in the exchange of understandings more equitable societies emerge. For many people the signs of these ideas might not be recognisable in his work and intentionally so. Like urban graffiti, from gang signs to local names to symbolic iconography, the camouflaged language is a method for people to communicate and unite around points of shared knowledge. As such, one of the interesting aspects of Parlá’s work is how he’s come to ‘abstraction’ from his education within street culture than discovering it from the historical lineage of the Western Art canon. Not that his reaching a form of abstraction from street culture is particularly unique. Many, if not most, street artists have ended up in the same place over the years however Parlá’s approach to line making as a signifier for a parallel culture carries power. A line asks the question where will it/the artist/we end up? And if culture is a historical thread then the answer to ‘how long is a piece of string?’ here depends on relational contexts, considerations of use, and perhaps something personal: how long do we need it to be?
Exhibition Notes – Phosphene / José Parlá
“Through‘Phosphene’Ienvisionacommunityofmemoriestobothstimulateandprovokequestionsintheimaginationsofthose looking at my paintings. This is a universal language for all human beings, so that it unifies, not separates, us.” – José Parlá
Ben Brown Fine Arts is proud to present Phosphene, an exhibition of new works by New York-based Cuban artist José Parlá at the flagship London gallery from 11 October to 17 November 2023, coinciding with Frieze London. This will be the artist’s second solo exhibition in the Mayfair space, following his highly acclaimed EchoofImpressionsshow in 2018. Phosphene forms the second part of a comprehensive exhibition that was preceded by earlier paintings from this series at our Hong Kong gallery in March 2023.
The significance of these works lies, in part, from their inspiration following the artist’s near-death experience with Covid (2021) and unveils an exhilarating and poignant exhibition drawing on recurring themes in his practice, including urban space, human markings, memory and energy.
Parlá’s Phospheneseries began while the artist spent time in his hometown of Miami, Florida, during what was meant to be a brief period of respite between his schedule of exhibitions around the world. There, surrounded by nature and brilliant sunlight, the artist began to experiment with painting outdoors – a stark contrast to his industrial studio in Brooklyn – using the sun to elucidate the abstract visual language in his mind. This exhibition takes its title from the visual phenomenon that gives the impression of seeing light with eyes closed. Appearing as flashes of colourful light, such as dots, swirls or shapes that wander slowly across a person’s vision, the term ‘phosphene’ is derived from Greek phōs ‘light’ + phainein ‘to show’.
For Parlá’s new body of work, the meditative sensation of letting the sun briefly penetrate his retina, producing an effect of hues, images and shapes appearing behind closed lids, was immediately translated to his paintings, creating mysterious, evocative landscapes of light and shadow. His intricately layered, seemingly asemic calligraphy, suggestive of optic nerves or arterial threads, is charged with obscured words and phrases, carriers of meaning in each work. This exhibition further explores his gestural, instinctual practice of calligraphy as a meditative, rhythmic process to his subconscious and interiority, the layers of inscrutable writing imbuing his paintings with both light and depth. The movement in the work is also reflective of the unique symbiosis Parlá experiences between sound and colour, listening to music as he paints to create a unique visual language, a form of synesthesia.
Phospheneis comprised of eleven pulsating works executed during this fertile period of enpleinairpainting, which build upon the experimental phenomenon of retinal closed-eye hallucinations and conjure complex memory abstractions as a dense maze of paints and textures. The works continue Parlá’s lifelong dialogue with the urban subconscious, the tempo and flow of the streets, and musical inspirations such as his roots in the conception days of Hip Hop culture. Furthermore, they are imbued with a quiet yet powerful spirit of survival that calls us to consider notions of legacy, ownership, and the imprints we leave behind.
“When I paint, I experience the feeling of synesthesia that brings my body into the painting. There is an alchemical connectionthrough material, music and movement that becomes the dance that incorporates polyrhythms of Cuban music, and HipHop into the language of my gestural mark making. That energy is both personal and provocative.”– José Parlá
Parlá is celebrated for his arrestingly energized paintings and installations that offer an abstract, visceral form of storytelling through palimpsestic layers of mixed media and dynamic calligraphic writing, accessing memory, history, language, and the universality of the human experience. In a rich building up of surface, his signature gestural line recalls the layers of city walls as witnesses that allude to the passage of time and to the theatre of life. They reflect the movement and textures of neighbourhoods, the physical impressions left around cities by time and people, and the inspirations and experiences which imprint on our psyche, weaving together the stories of Parlá’s recent past and at the same time exploring the collective memories of the world through which he travels. This exhibition further explores his gestural, instinctual practice of calligraphy as a meditative, rhythmic process to his subconscious and interiority, the layers of inscrutable writing imbuing his paintings with both light and depth.
Phosphene: José Parlá. 11th October – 17th November 2023
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. – Aristotle