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A few weeks before New York issued a stay-at-home order, José Parlá’s solo show “It’s Yours” opened to much celebration at the Bronx Museum. The exhibition of new works, organized by guest curator Manon Slome, presents the artist’s connection to the borough—through paintings that reflect the layered history and energy of city walls and streets, as well as showcasing his personal sketchbooks and drawings.
“It’s Yours” is temporarily closed to the public now, and Parlá is back in the studio working harder than ever. His work has become meditative—an offering or prayer for those battling the pandemic. He lives across the street from a major hospital and sees every day the people putting their lives at risk to save others.
Whitewall spoke with Parlá about his determination to document this moment and his hope to inspire others in the process.
WHITEWALL: How are you doing?
JOSÉ PARLÁ: Thank you for asking. I am doing well health-wise, and I’m grateful that my family is healthy, as well. During this time of quarantine, I am in my studio continuing to work on paintings that have become offerings, prayers for the world to become well and get past this pandemic.
The paintings are also reflections of how I am feeling in so many ways—from my reactions to the daily news on all kinds of networks; to the news I’ve received from family and friends in support of each other, sharing, teaching; and to the most difficult and sad news of friends who have passed away.
WW: I am deeply sorry for your loss. How are you staying connected?
JP: Connecting with family and friends is what has kept me sane mostly, and I’ve been fortunate that work is keeping me busy. I have also stayed connected with National YoungArts Foundation and our cohort in the Social Sculpture project, as well as done a few art talks over Zoom with other high school and university programs in New York.
I am in conversations with Henry Street Settlement for this year’s benefit and working to help raise funds for their programs helping people in need. I’m talking with Snøhetta about doing a talk soon, so I’ll keep you updated where and when it happens live on Instagram.
On the music side, I’ve been sending friends and posting playlists to help uplift the energy while we are at home. I have also been in touch with the Bronx Museum of the Arts, where I have my show at the moment, to plan for what we can do when we are able to open doors again, and l have also stayed connected with the galleries that represent me planning projects, all of which will find ways to give back and help reach those in need of assistance.
WW: Can you tell us about your exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts?
JP: My exhibition opened on February 26 and is now being extended at the Bronx Museum of the Arts until January of 2021. Because things are so uncertain as to when museums or the city can open up again, we really don’t have exact dates.
The exhibition conceptually addresses several ideas of ownership. The title, “It’s Yours,” is one that I borrowed from a legendary song by Bronx rapper T La Rock. The song has inspired me for decades and I thought it appropriate and invitational.
I made paintings inspired by Bronx walls, colors textures and markings. I have always thought of city walls as our society’s message boards and making a statement about ownership belonging, existence. There are several large-scale paintings titled using some of the lyrics from It’s Yours like “No Color Supersedes Cause the Balance is Right,” “It’s Yours,” “The International Illegal Construct Against Indigenous People,” and “Waves of Displacement,” which all deal with race inequity, red lining policies, and The Founders pays homage to the artists that inspired me—Phase 2, Riff 170, Tracy 168, Lee, Kase 2, Futura, Reas, Kaves, Kaws, Chino, Jes 1, Faz, Edec, JR, OsGemeos, and many more mentors and peers who have made writing global and local at the same time.
The exhibition also features my early and original sketchbooks from age 10 to 17, full of colored drawings and images of walls I painted as a teenager. These pages pay tribute to style writing culture and made a great connection to the “Art vs. Transit” exhibition by Henry Chalfant at the museum while my show opened.
WW: What are you listening to, reading, watching?
JP: To stay updated with what is going on, I’ve been listening to NPR radio, reading The New York Times, and all kinds of different news from around the world. When I find time to wind down, I have been re-reading Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind and started Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow, both by Yuval Noah Harari.
I’ve been keeping a steady schedule and working long hours painting so when I’m home, after reading the news, I am too exhausted to watch movies lately. It’s like all I want to do is paint and draw—I’ve been doing a lot of drawing.
WW: What are you cooking?
JP: When I was very young, I would always watch my mom and sometimes my dad cook, and I’d learn and ask them questions. So, luckily, I’m a pretty good cook. I mainly cook Cuban dishes but being that these days are not normal at all, I’ve been very frugal and keeping things light, cooking one meal a day and that’s during lunch at the studio. So, it’s either fish or chicken with vegetables and I really got into making mushroom soups or mushroom rice or pasta. For breakfast I have cereal or plain yogurt.
WW: How are you staying inspired and hopeful?
JP: I live in front of a major hospital and see doctors and nurses working so hard every day. It’s been chaotic and busy at all hours with all kinds of care workers all pitching in. To see how hard they work in such dangerous conditions taking risks for all of us has made me inspired and hopeful. If they can work so hard, it makes me feel that I have to work harder than ever at what I do. They are in the front lines and as an artist I want to reflect and document this moment in my own way, so that hopefully I can inspire other people as well.
WW: What upcoming projects are you working on?
JP: While construction is on hold due to Covid-19 I am working on the final stages of the Far Rockaway Public Library designed by Snøhetta. The façade is entirely made of glass with my work imbedded in it.
The paintings I’m working on now are taking an interesting meditative and spiritual direction. Each one is a prayer and I will have the opportunity to show them in Japan with Yuka Tsuruno Gallery and with Gana Art Center in Korea in the fall, and in 2021 with Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong.