José Parlá is a Brooklyn-based artist with roots in street art. His latest series of paintings and sculptures (on view at the Jewel Box, an exhibition space at the National YoungArts Foundation in Miami) show signs of his tagging past. Graffiti is, after all, how he got his introduction to art as a teenager back in ‘80s Miami – a time when he first met Keith Haring.
Parlá’s new work is inspired by the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (a group of sculptures here look like found pieces from the Wall), which ties into his own family’s past: his parents fled Cuba in the 1970s for America and this new show explores the influence the fall of the Wall had on Cuba.
The exhibition also references the names of streets in Miami, Brooklyn and the Bronx, relating to three periods of time that 43-year-old Parlá made major leaps in his work. While his work has been mounted in the One World Trade Center and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Parlá still reminisces about his days as a street artist in Miami, the hip hop culture of the time and why all good writers put energy into their work.
What’s your new show, Roots, all about?
The title of the show ties into this current time and the importance of people reflecting on their own roots; trying to understand the diversity of culture. Thinking about the US election and what the future holds, thinking about our rights and the rights of immigrants, I thought it was an important time to reflect on that. My works in these show reflects on the history of Cuba, its independence, the revolution, up until 2015 where you start seeing hope with the conversations between President Obama and Fidel Castro – conversations they didn’t have in over 57 years.
Some of your work looks like it originates in street art or graffiti.
When I started making art, nobody referred to it as street art. I come from tagging and hip hop culture. I was one of the originals in Miami in the early 1980s. My street art name was Ease. One piece here is called Ease vs. Me, because of having grown up as a writer and spending many years in that school, then challenging the traditional forms of academic art with the underbelly of the city. Is it a folk art? High art? Low art? A lot of the work is inspired by abstract expressionism like Cy Twombly and Joan Mitchell and action painting of the 1960s. What we were doing out in the streets was action painting.
What was it like being a street artist in the 1980s?
We were just artists. We didn’t have art school or museums. We used the streets, the tunnels and the subways as our way to communicate with the public. It was invented by kids and it was a code between all of us. Art saved us from getting into trouble. It was something to do. The motion and the speed of the way the works are done comes from doing it quickly, but with style and representation. That’s how you know who is a good writer. The energy is in there. I’ll probably always carry that with me.
What about the sculptures in the show?
I call them sculptural paintings and they’re inspired by the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall. To Cuban people, it’s a symbol of change in the end of Communism. But Cuba is still a Communist country. It was a way to say that social upheaval is happening all over the world. The works are meant to look like they’ re not from the future or from ancient times. We can’t define it. It’s ambiguous.
What are your thoughts on the Miami art scene as an artist who grew up here?
It has always been tied to New York through art and music, since the 1920s, the jazz era. When I was a teenager, I met Keith Haring in Miami, who was opening his Pop Shop. He was really generous and sweet — he wanted to know what kind of art we were into. There was a lot of New York musical acts who came down; Beastie Boys, Public Enemy. Miami also had a vibrant hip hop culture with 2 Live Crew. The music brought the artists.
Roots was commissioned as part of the Rolls-Royce Art Programme in partnership with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and is curated by Laurie Ann Farrell. It runs at the Jewel Box until 15th December at the National YoungArts Foundation in Miami.