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By Katy Donoghue
March 31, 2023
José Parlá’s “Phosphene” is currently on view at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong through April 29. The exhibition of new paintings and works on paper are part of the titular new series for the Brooklyn-based artist. They are a result of time spent in his hometown of Miami for a period of recovery following his medically-induced coma as a result of contracting COVID-19 in 2021. That near-death experience has had a profound impact on the artist and his practice.
While in Miami, he began painting outdoors, observing the natural phenomenon of what we see when our eyes are closed, heads tilted toward the sun. Parlá translated that dance of light, abstract shapes, and traces of color onto new, more intimate paintings. Their smaller scale is in contrast to the mural-like size of the artist’s earlier works—created with great feats of physicality, like jumping from ladders in his Brooklyn studio. Parlá’s exploration of memory, layering, gesture, and language, however, remains ever-present.
Ahead of his opening in Hong Kong, Parlá shared with Whitewall about transferring his paintings from the personal to a more universal amplification.
WHITEWALL: Your works currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, Ciclos-Blooms of Mold, read like landscapes. Do these new works in “Phosphene” at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong come from a similar exploration?
JOSÉ PARLÁ: Ciclos-Blooms of Mold comes from exploring painting while I was in the recovery unit of the hospital after waking up from an induced coma after being in a coma for three months. In the winter wave of 2021, before the vaccine was available to my age group I became severely sick with Covid-19.
Weeks after waking up and through my physical therapy I had to learn to walk and swallow, do the small things like brush my teeth, write, and in general get my weight up, as I had lost 60 pounds. My brother Rey and one of my doctors from ICU brought me watercolor paper and some brushes and paints. In that process of recovery I painted six small landscapes that became the first of that series that I would eventually paint in large-scale for the Brooklyn Museum.
The dreams I had while I was in a coma registered as real-life memories. Throughout my coma dreams, I had visions like phosphenes that reproduced what I later interpreted as mycelium. The Brooklyn Museum and Damiani published a book about the paintings that has in-depth written essays by Anne Pasternak, Manon Slome, Catherine Futter, Rey Parlá, as well as words from the doctors that treated me and friends Julia Chiang, Hank Willis Thomas, JR, Craig Dykers, and Duke Riley, who often visited me at the hospital. These paintings and experiences led me to work with the concept of phosphene for this ongoing series for Hong Kong and London in the fall.
WW: Some of the works in “Phosphene” are at a much smaller scale than we’ve seen in your work. You said that to make them, you imagined yourself small. What made you want to work on this scale?
JP: When working to scale up or scale down I often have imagined the application of lines, colors, and textures to flow in the same way as they do in actual life scale. To do that I imagined myself as a miniature self.
WW: What was it like to imagine yourself small?
JP: The imagination is a powerful thing. It’s not difficult for me to imagine and even see and create on the microscopic plane. First you imagine something and what follows is the control of the brush or pen to make things small and tight. When I painted really scale large murals like One Union of the Senses or Amistad America that are scaled to an architectural level, I imagine myself as a giant.
WW: You write about transferring your painting from the personal to amplified. What do you want to amplify in these pieces?
JP: In trying to amplify an abstract language from the personal, I know that each viewer will see or imagine something unique and personal to them when seeing the work. Abstraction in itself amplifies a universal language, a link in life, a common thread of unity as we all have questions about the unknown, creation, existence, and what is beyond when we are no longer on the physical plane.
WW: You also said you imagine these as a community of memories. How so? What do you hope that brings up in the viewer?
JP: Each painting and the layers of writing within them are made of my own community of memories and experiences. I am writing layers of stories, from my dreams, from real life, about my friends and family, about art, a poem, a stream of consciousness flows from my mind to the pen and brush. There is movement translating and echoing the source of words and the action displays its emotion. The words in my paintings are layered so no one can read them. Whether they are memories, or thoughts about my childhood, or of a recent experience, writing them into the paintings is a meditative process for me. I can start painting with writing in a premeditated course and suddenly an unpredictable process can switch from an autobiographical verse to a sentence about my travels, or a feeling or description about current political issues and the news. The memories are obscured into abstract landscapes that I hope the viewer can reflect upon and think of these layers as the layers of their own memories and life experience.
WW: This exhibition is on view in Hong Kong. As your practice has so much to do with place and memory, how did the location of Hong Kong impact the work or putting together of the show?
JP: Hong Kong is very special to me, and I have been visiting the city since 2005. I love it there. This series, however, is an ongoing series that will expand into a new body of work I am making now for a solo show with Ben Brown in London opening October 10. I am enjoying this mode of thinking and painting so it may continue to travel, as well.
Go inside the worlds of art, fashion, design, and lifestyle.