• People
  • Mar 22, 2023

Visualizing the Inner Eye: An Interview with José Parlá

Portrait of JOSE PARLA. Photo by Ray Parla. Courtesy the artist.

Known for his highly energetic, textured abstractions that recall calligraphy and graffiti scrawled on city walls, New York-based Cuban artist José Parlá debuted a new painting series this March at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong. The “Phosphene” paintings are alternately more ethereal and more serene in appearance, and reflect the artist’s creative hiatus in Miami while recovering from a near-death experience after contracting Covid-19. ArtAsiaPacific caught up with Parlá before the exhibition opened to find out how events of recent years have shaped this new body of work.

Can you describe how making the “Phosphene” paintings was different than working in your New York studio? Did the warm weather in Florida, and a more sunlight- and nature-filled environment, compel you to paint differently and approach your process in a different way?

Working outdoors in nature in the sunlight surrounded by tropical plants listening to Cuban music automatically brought me back to my roots in the Caribbean and Miami. I was born in Miami, so painting there again conjured memories of my early days with my family and as an artist. “Phosphene” is very much about the internal self. How light enters the eye, particularly when the eyes are closed. Closed-eye vision, in this case, is a kind of hallucination. To paint this way is to capture memories and dreams, and through paintings I translate them into abstract storytelling.

There are musical rhythms that I follow while painting and that is something translated as well visually but the painting is not sonic itself. This “Phosphene” project is ongoing; after Hong Kong it continues in London this October at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London. With the paintings I will also present new music I’ve been making in a new collaboration for a vinyl release. I want the visitors to have access to the music I listen to and make the paintings to, both sonically and visually. 

JOSE PARLA, Seeing in Phosphene, 2023, acrylic and oil on canvas, 152.4 × 243.8cm. Courtesy the artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong.

When you were working on a painting like Seeing in Phosphene (2023), for example, were you consciously trying to recreate what it looks like when you close your eyes after looking at something bright? Or did the title and idea come after finishing the painting process and you recognized these sensational similarities?

A phosphene is the phenomenon of seeing light without light entering the eye. The painting Seeing in Phosphene is made of of brief stories of my life written in a universal style of calligraphy rooted in years of practicing different styles. The feeling that the words produce is in the signature’s gesture. The color and form are the space in my mind’s imagination.

JOSE PARLA, People People, acrylic and oil on canvas, 182.9 × 274.3cm. Courtesy the artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong.

Psycho-Geographical Texture (2023) and People People (2022) are wild paintings: have you developed new ways of mark-making in these recent works?

People People does have a wild attitude in the way I painted it. It is my interpretation on the movement of light and energy in people. I imagined thousands of people marching for freedom. The title People People is inspired by the lyrics on Public Enemy’s song Fight the Power (1989): “To revolutionize, make a change, nothin’s strange / People, people! We are the same / No, we’re not the same ’cause we don’t know the game / What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless! You say, ‘What is this?’ My beloved, let’s get down to business, mental self-defensive fitness.”

Psycho-Geographical Texture is of a place, any place, an abstraction of a wall or location that can be Hong Kong, New York, Miami—any big city alleyway with the layers of paint peeling, the writing on the wall, the rust and mold, those elements representative of patina and memory in a very tangible real way. It is the painting in the show that grounds me.

How did your painting practice and your recovery go together? Did making work play a part in processing your experiences and did it help in certain mental and physical ways?

Like family and love, painting and music played the most important roles in my recovery. After waking up from being in a coma for three months, my body and memory needed to relearn so many things. I had to learn to walk again and remember my life because so much was a blur. Painting and listening to music was part of my physical therapy. 

In 2022 made a series titled Ciclos: Blooms of Mold that started out as studies in while I was still in the hospital. I made six small works on paper—now on view at the Brooklyn Museum alongside five large-scale paintings. The museum and Damiani published a book about that experience. The paintings are part of the “Brooklyn Abstraction: Four Artists, Four Walls” exhibition at the museum. Making that series and moving along into the “Polarities” series shown in Detroit’s Library Street Collective allowed me to focus and be active physically. The exhibition’s themes and writing about the work helped me mentally.

JOSE PARLA, Espanola, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 25.4 × 25.4 cm. Courtesy the artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong.

There’s a lot of heat in these large paintings, but then you’ve also made these very cool, blue canvases (Blue Clouds, Written Dreams, Española), which almost seem delicate by comparison. Is there a different rhythm to working on a small scale like this? Or what’s that experience like for you?

The colors in the paintings came to me while I closed my eyes. When I opened my eyes I would sometimes look at the clouds in the sky or at the sun, or sometimes I’d look at the wall or at the floor. When I would blink I saw the colors in what I was looking at along with forms of my calligraphy. There are imaginative paintings. The small works are very intimate and the large paintings allow me to be more loose.

JOSE PARLA, Psycho-Geographical Texture, acrylic and oil on canvas, 182.9 × 274.3cm. Courtesy the artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong.

I like the title Psycho-Geographical Texture because seems like a very succinct phrase for your interests in representing the textures of spaces and the feelings, memories, and associations we get from our physical environments. But in this painting and others in “Phosphene,” it also seems like you are sharing your hallucinations or interior visions. Is that a new direction for you, or do you think you’ve always been doing that in your works?

Great question. I have been always doing this. One of the first painting I made in this style is from 2010 and is titled Eyes Towards the Sun. Abstract painting, imagining what I paint has always been a kind of hallucination.

For you, what’s the correlation between emotion and gesture, and emotion and color?

Emotions come through a gesture. A gesture is like a dance, an expression of thoughts, emotion, history, sensations, everything we experience whether we know it or not shows through our body language. Painting is a reflection of the body and mind language. Each gesture is a carrier of personality and experience.

How do you think about the idea of trompe l’oeil in relation to your works? Do you want your canvases or sculptures to be briefly/temporarily mistaken for real surfaces?

The trompe l’oeil technique is different from what I do. I imagine places from memory and paint in a reactive emotional way using techniques that combine various materials, and not only oil. I understand what you mean, though, and it is my intention to cause a brief or temporary question between reality or abstraction.

How did it feel to show your paintings next to Gerhard Richter’s canvases at the Hong Kong Spotlight fair in 2020? Is he an important artist for you? What, if anything, do you get from his work?

Gerhard Richter is an important artist for me for many reasons. Mainly I admire how he can make so many different styles so masterfully. It was an honor to have my paintings exhibit alongside his paintings.

Next time you’re in Hong Kong, or if you were in Hong Kong in March, what would you be excited to do and see?

There is so much to do in Hong Kong, but I would mostly be excited to see my Hong Kong local friends and to go and eat dim sum. I love walking around getting lost and taking photographs of the city. I first went to Hong Kong in 2005 and fell in love with the city, the energy and people. I would love to visit the Tian Tan Buddha.

José Parlá’s exhibition “Phosphene” is on view at Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong, through April 29, 2023.

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