José Parlá’s Art Is as Rich and Complex as the Political Situations It Represents
Some cities have personality all over them; history seeps from their walls and pavements, revealing days gone by under layers of paint and tarmac. José Parlá captures that characteristic of place in his stunning paintings. Melding abstract expressionism with his roots in street art, along with a healthy sheath of newspaper cuttings for social and temporal context, Parlá creates works that require a second look to fully appreciate their depth.
His current exhibition, at Haunch of Venison in London, collects together works inspired by his travels in India and Cuba, as well as a site-specific work for the gallery. The latter, Night and Day in London Town, is based on his recent time in London. The painting, which covers two walls in the Mayfair gallery, unmistakably portrays all the vibrancy, vitality, colour and ugliness that is London’s hip East End over a typical 24 hours.
Parlá was brought up in Miami, Florida, born to Cuban parents. It is still almost impossible for Cuban citizens to leave the country, and there is a pervading ambivalence to the once nationally celebrated Castro regime, which has grown as the island gradually opened up to capitalist economics and tourism. Parlá himself clearly inherited some of the necessary bravery to face the regime: a recent work, Wrinkles of the City, saw him graffiti huge portraits of Havana’s forgotten elderly on the city’s crumbling walls. In Cuba, that’s a prohibited act.
It takes more than one look to appreciate a José Parlá painting.
An outstanding piece in the Haunch of Venison collection plays with the deep feelings of the Cuban people around Castro and the country’s governance. Parlá began Sign of the Times (pictured) when Fidel Castro announced he would hand over power in Cuba to his brother Raoul. Commemorating what Parlá sees as a political death, the painting is made of layers of newspaper clippings from English-written publications documenting the changes, overpainted to convey a strong, dark emotion.
Finished just prior to the Haunch of Venison opening, the final stroke was to paint the work’s title on it in blood-red scrawl. With it, Parlá captures both the grief at the end of a state – that once so utterly captivated its people – with the anger of a people betrayed and trapped in an island paradise.
Many of Parlá’s other pieces exhibit a similar depth and layering, combined with an intriguing and engaging aesthetic. While some of the pieces lack an initial point of engagement, ultimately they’re reminiscent of the complex political situations they portray: it takes more than one look to appreciate a José Parlá painting.
Broken Languages runs at Haunch of Venison, London, until 28 March. Images courtesy of José Parlá and Haunch of Venison; photography by Peter Mallet.