Written By Emilie Kefalas
For Cuban American artist and SCAD painting alumnus José Parlá, plastered, graffitied city walls inspire endless creativity. Parlá latest exhibit presented by the SCAD Museum of Art, “Roots,” features prominently in this year’s deFINE ART from its display in the Pamela Elaine Poetter Gallery.
The exhibit examines Parlá’s connection to the streets and places that molded his artistic identity. Currently based in Brooklyn, New York, Parlá began working on the painting and sculpture pieces seen in “Roots” around three years ago, though he said it is almost impossible to time how long a single pieces takes to complete.
“It’s pretty impossible to time how long one piece takes, because you’re working over a period of years on several works,” Parlá said. “Choosing the work for this expedition relates to several other projects.”
Parlá attended SCAD in the early 1990’s, and “Roots” marks his second exhibition in the SCAD MOA since graduating. He previously exhibited in a two-person show with fellow painting alumn, Wendy White (B.F.A., fibers, 1993).
Much of Parlá’s work is influenced by his time growing up in Miami, Florida, where he learned quickly how difficult it was to be an artist.
“I started out really young as an artist,” Parlá said. “It was a very difficult, very violent city, and you were considered an outsider in society if you were an artist. Throughout the many years, I felt that becoming closer and staying close to my roots was important to me.”
Parlá describes his work as rather specific and unique, though he includes nods to artists he admires from abstract expressionism.
“I did say to [SCAD MOA curator] Storm [Janse van Rensburg] earlier that there’s been a thread happening at SCAD Museum,” Parlá said. “I like that there’s this sort of contemporary conversation happening with artists doing this work. Like mine is very colorful and very layered compared to what they’ve done.”
Parlá arranged his homemade slabs in a manner meant to guide viewers from one end of the gallery to the other. The walls are not from buildings but influenced by real places with which Parlá is familiar.
“I’ve made them by hand,” Parlá said. “They’re all made of plaster, paper. I work with materials that are lighter.”
One of Parlá’s walls is named for a street in Harlem, New York, and the posters plastered and scratched on the piece are from actual walls in that part of the city.
“I do research,” Parlá said. “I usually rip much larger sections. I would say a lot of these pieces are more theatrical in their making, so it’s not just me. I imagine someone might rip something or over the years, there’s also the patina of the wear and tear of the surface.”
The first series of sculptures viewers see upon entering the gallery from the lobby doors is titled “Segmented Realities.” Parlá said he started creating the individual pieces about the same time as the 25th anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall. To coincide with that milestone was inspiration from President Obama’s 2015 announcement that the United States and the Cuban government would renew official talks after 57 years.
“It’s been something on my mind forever,” Parlá said. “How walls have influenced my work, [and how they] are influenced in particular by the shift between paintings that have a two dimensional aspect. The pieces are mainly locations. I guess you can say they pay homage to different locations.”
Parlá said he really wanted his work to flow with the architecture of his gallery space because the details from the paintings and scraps on the walls harmonize with the building’s bricks.
“There’s a lot of conversation with this building and these brick walls,” Parlá said. “You can see the patina, and even sometimes when you look at the patina, you can have different views. That’s what I love about it, and it’s sort of like being able to imagine these being buildings themselves.”
Parlá said the goal of the exhibit is to accentuate our diverse roots in a space where viewers can be close to the artwork.
“There’s a lot of hidden messages and figures that go into these pieces,” Parlá said. “I’m a huge believer that things don’t come out of nothing.”