Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell claimed that you could measure the priorities of a society by its highest structure. In medieval Europe, that structure was the church spire; in Paris, a very elegant radio tower. In Manhattan, in the year 2015, it's the sky-scraping One World Trade Center, a run-of-the-mill, $3.8 billion office building that carries just a touch of historic and symbolic resonance—just a touch.
So, if you’re artist José Parlá, who has just been given the commission to create a monumental mural (90x15 feet) for the lobby, where do you begin?
José applying the finishing touches at One World Trade. Photo: Rey Parlá
“To be honest, this was the most difficult painting I’ve ever done,” Parlá confesses during an interview in his Brooklyn studio. We sit on a pair of mid-century sofas overlooking an open floor below. A dozen or so canvases in various stages of completion hang on four modular walls that, unlike the derelict, abandoned walls he captures so powerfully in his art, are clean and white. His whole studio is something out of an artist's dream. Behold an American success story...
From the Streets to the Gallery, Back to the Streets, and into our Plaza
Born in Miami in 1973 to exiled Cuban parents, Parlá started painting under the name Ease in the 1980s. He received a scholarship to the Savannah School of Art and Design, left early to help his family recover from Hurricane Andrew and further developed his unique fusion of calligraphy and abstract expressionism at the New World School of Art. He moved to the Bronx in 1998 and his first big break came in 2003 when he was selected by Agnès B. for a group show in Paris.
1. The Wrinkles of the City: Havana Cuba, Published by Standard Press (2012) 2. The first José Parlá scarf for The Standard 3. José Parlá Tourist Tee 4. Cafecito Neptuno, a pop-up Cuban café at The Standard, Miami during Art Basel 2012. 5. Parlá's latest title, "Segmented Realities," for sale exclusively at The Standard. 6. “Habana y Cuarteles,” (2015) a limited edition cashmere scarf.
It was a few years later, in 2009, that Parlá crossed paths with The Standard, designing a Miami Beach "Tourist Tee" as part of an artist tee project we were doing. A year later, he designed a scarf (part of an artist scarf thing we were doing), and, in 2012, Standard Press co-published, “The Wrinkles of the City: Havana Cuba” the centerpiece of the Havana Biennale, which chronicled his street art collaboration with JR. To celebrate its launch (and to keep weary art goers caffeinated during Art Basel Miami) Parlá created a pop-up Cuban Cafecito where the Juice Café is presently located.
By then, Parlá was locking up his reputation as the go-to guy for large-scale public commissions with a mural in Toronto, another at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and yet another at the new Barclays Center—all the while showing in the world’s top galleries and catching the eyes of collectors like Tom Ford, Eric Clapton, and Jay-Z (who may or may not have had a hand in promoting him for the Barclays job.)
JR, José, Jay-Z and Beyoncé at the Launch of "The Wrinkles of the City: Havana Cuba" at The Standard, Miami Beach (2012) Photo: BFA
But these all turned out to be practice runs for the mother of all commissions: The Standard Plaza. Just kidding, we’ll get to that in a moment, but first we had ask what it was like to paint a 90x15 foot canvas for the lobby of One World Trade.
“For some reason I thought that it was going to be this magical kind of happening," Parlá recalls. Although he had already sketched out the composition, when brush came to canvas, it didn't go so smoothly. The scale of it, emotionally and physically, was overwhelming. "I had to just go bare bones and start like any other painting.” And so for a year, he worked day and night, immersed in a cacophony of color so sensorially absorbing that he started experiencing something akin to the neurological condition, synesthesia. “It’s the perception of feeling through hearing, or tasting through eyesight, or touching through smell,” José explains. “All your senses are so 'on' that they’re all happening at once.” And thus came the title of the piece, ONE: Union of the Senses.
From Union to Segmentation
José Parlá Segmented Realities (2015) Courtesy of the Artist and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, #segmentedrealities, Photos: Chris Mosier
If Parlá’s "Union of the Senses” symbolizes the coming together not only of senses, but of countries, cultures, and colors, then his next project, “Segmented Realities” (a large-scale, sculptural painting series) represents the breaking down of divisions, between both cultures and mediums. The idea to do "wall sculptures" came from a video project by José's brother Rey, also titled “Segmented Realities”, in which he filmed José painting on walls around Miami. If walls can be canvases, then why not fabricate canvases that look like walls?
Photo: Chris Mosier
Parlá started the series a year ago with his gallery Bryce Wolkowitz, followed by another set of ten for the High Museum in Atlanta, and then an installation along the Malecon in Havana for the Biennial this past spring. For The Plaza at The Standard, High Line, Parlá has created three of his largest works to date, with the largest topping off at 15 feet. Each segment represents cities formative to Parlá’s youth: Havana, Miami, and San Juan. The rocky, two-sided canvases are covered in bright pastels and various personal iconography from the artist’s life. Think of them as really, really heavy scrapbooks.
Parlá and the New Cuba
It’s hard to look at busted chunks of graffitied concrete and not think of Berlin, where a wall actually was torn asunder and whose segments now symbolize an important historical moment. José's segments come along at a similar moment of crumbling political barriers. Although this project was well underway when the White House announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S., he feels very much a part of the political process, albeit indirectly.
“I believe that the arts had a huge impact on the policymaker’s decision,” Parlá explains. “The communications between the United States and Cuba happened in two places first, with art and with sports. And those two things opened doors. It gave hope. I’ve been going to Cuba for a long time to visit family and to work on projects, like the one with JR, and somehow we planted seeds. And also, artists from Cuba were coming up here and American artists and European artists were going there. They all planted seeds that would allow for the diplomacy to take shape. And I think it’s a great thing.”
This development certainly gives the fragments a political charge, but perhaps more central is Parlá’s preoccupation with locality, a leitmotif throughout his work. This imbibing of specific places layered with his language of abstraction transforms something very specific into something much broader, much more universal, and it is that telescoping between the local and the global—be it interwoven fields of color at One World Trade or broken pieces of wall from San Juan plopped at West 13th and Washington—that so elegantly evokes our globalized world, as unified as it is segmented.
In conjunction with the “Segmented Realities” installation, José has created a stunningly beautiful cashmere scarf: “Habana Y Cuarteles,” (2015) Manufactured by the expert crafts-people at Begg + Co. in Scotland, this super luxurious, limited-edition piece is available for purchase at ShopTheStandard.com and The Shop at The Standard, High Line.
The Standard is also debuting Parlá’s latest book, “Segmented Realities.” The book is on sale here as well as at The Shop at The Standard, High Line.
And we made a Standard Sounds playlist of Cuban music. Enjoy!
• Our Stan in Havana
• The Wrinkles of the City
• Watch The Wrinkles of the City Documentary
• The Standard Interviews JR about his Ballet