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José Parlá on Collective Memory


José Parlá on Collective Memory
Courtesy of the José Parlá Studio

Bringing both art to the streets and street art to white cube gallery spaces, artist José Parlá's observations of society and his environment go all the way back to the walls of his childhood, as he appreciated society's efforts to hide deteriorating concrete by plastering fresh coats of paint on top. Actively involved in hip-hop's underground art culture since the age of ten, his practice aims to change the misperception of graffiti and Street Art as vandalism, reinstating how Street Art is the people's Art; an Art that is in tune with the times and a visual representation of the effects of politics on society. 

His solo showcase 'Textures of Memory' is his take on society's collective memory of which life and Art seem to dissolve, integrating seamlessly and beautifully within the layers of paint on city walls over time. Parlá's artworks simulate the process of decay through time, resulting in incredible textures on his canvases from the aggressive tearing down of posters and advertisements from walls that leave fragments of paper and adhesive residue to build up along with layers of writings and paint.

We spoke with the artist on the occasion of his Hong Kong exhibition to find out more about his inspirations.

Image courtesy of the José Parlá Studio

Your works have received international acclaim for their distinct amalgamation of art, architecture and street art. You’ve also spent over twenty years establishing your current style of painting. What would you say are your main influences behind your practice?

The main influence behind my practice is the observation of society and my environment. I started painting on walls when I was very young and also photographing art on walls as well as deteriorating wall surfaces like old posters layered up and decaying paint in layers forming a kind of visual abstraction that I always felt was representative of the neglect caused by politics. Texture of Memory is about a built-up collective memory on the layers of city walls around the world.


You engage strongly with public art in much of your work and it has consistently been a part of your practice. Why have you chosen to take up these public commissions, and why is public art so important to you?

Public art is important to me because it allows me to engage the public that does not often go to a museum or an art gallery. The people walking around the city or in and out of a lobby can chance upon a piece of art, perhaps bringing some positive change to their day.

José Parlá Textures of Memory Exhibition at The Annex, HOCA, Hong Kong. Image courtesy of the José Parlá Studio

Which large-scale work have you made that you find yourself most attached to? Why?

One Union of the Senses is one of my largest paintings located at the One World Trade Center in New York City. It is a very special place with a deep history that shifted the way the world works now. It marks a time in New York History and I am honoured to have a mural there.


Notable collectors of your work impressively include Jay-Z, Tom Ford, Agnes B and Takashi Murakami. What would you say has been the most interesting encounter with someone who has collected your work, or perhaps the most interesting sale that you’ve made?

There are too many great encounters in my career to just mention one as the most interesting. I am just honoured and truly privileged to be in the position I am in as an artist. It is a true honour for other artists to collect my work.


Your incredible 2012 work with French artist JR, ‘Wrinkles of the City: Havana, Cuba’, was selected to be in the 11th Havana Biennial. It features a visual commentary on the lives of Cuba’s elders in a city whose walls are otherwise adorned only by images of its leaders. The documentary on this work was also awarded the Grand Prize for Documentary Short and Best U.S. Premiere Documentary Short in 2013. What were your motivations behind creating this work, and what were some of your biggest challenges?

JR and I were motivated to make something special paying homage to the grandparents of Cuba. The elderly people have so many great stories and lessons to share and they deserve our respect and attention. We were truly inspired by the people we met and honoured to have been able to collaborate together with the people of Havana.

José Parlá Textures of Memory Exhibition at The Annex, HOCA, Hong Kong. Image courtesy of the José Parlá Studio

Your most comprehensive solo exhibition, ‘Textures of Memory’, is now on show in Hong Kong spanning two venues - Hong Kong Contemporary Art (HOCA) Foundation and Ben Brown Fine Arts. What would you like your viewers to pay attention to from an exhibition of this scale?

It would be a privilege if the viewers can read between the lines and see the combination of reality and abstraction in these works spanning over the years of 2004 to 2019. I think they are a reflection of our times and I am inspired by the merging of life and art, of which I feel there is no separation.


Tremont Ave. Conversations with Mimmo Rotella by José Parlá

Although you started out as a painter in the early 1980s, you ventured into other mediums and are now described as a multidisciplinary artist. What advice do you have for artists out there who are thinking of pursuing mediums and genres that they might not be too familiar with?

My advice is to follow your heart and define yourself. It is important to be articulate about your work and process but to also be free to use any medium you think resonates with you personally and philosophically as an artist. There are limitless ways to express your art.

Manifestation of the Body's Revolution by José Parlá

What’s next for José Parlá? Are there any mediums or themes that you’re hoping to explore in your practice?

For my upcoming February 2020 exhibition at the Bronx Museum of Art in New York City, I am working with new materials incorporating fabrics and weaving. My latest show in Istanbul, I delved into ceramic making and used pigmented clay. It was very new to me but it turned out a success. In 2021, I will be working with glass for a large scale architectural project in collaboration with Snøhetta. This is going to be a monumental scale, something I have never worked with before.


Catch José Parlá’s exhibitions at The Annex until October 11, and Ben Brown Fine Arts until 4 November!

Inspired? Get your fix of art on The Artling, featuring works by over 2,500 contemporary artists from around the world. 



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