After a lengthy recovery, the artist comes back with the most vigorous work he’s made: “It took me a really long time to understand what had happened to me.”
By Max Lakin
July 31, 2022
DETROIT — During the three months last year that the artist José Parlá was in a medically induced coma after contracting Covid-19, he had vivid dreams that he later found difficult to process: managing a Miami hotel circa 1980 and navigating a kidnapping plot involving his brother and the Hong Kong triads. “I was perceiving these dreams not as dreams but as memories,” he said. “Events that I believed had happened but weren’t real.”
The intensity of those visions, experienced unconscious and close to death, are metabolized in Parlá’s new body of work, completed since his recovery, titled “Polarities,” at Library Street Collective, an art gallery here. Seven large-scale paintings on canvas and two on wood, at human scale, can be read as a body scan, and their dense networks of lines radiating outward from a central node can appear arterial, conjuring the intricate workings of the respiratory system, or the firing synapses in the brain.
But as personal as they are, they avoid much of the solipsism that characterized artists’ work during the pandemic. Instead they take an expansive, world-historical view, reaching much further back, as Parlá’s work tends to do, to trace the psycho-geographic effect a place, and the memory of it, can have.
Parlá, who lives in New York City and whose work is in the permanent collections of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana and the British Museum, first visited Detroit in 2006 not knowing anyone here, simply looking to walk around and take photographs. He returned in 2018, after meeting JJ and Anthony Curis, owners and founders of Library Street Collective, who invited him to witness the changes the city was working through. Parlá decided then to devote a body of work to Detroit, which probably would have debuted in 2020 if not for the pandemic. The idea was further waylaid when Parlá contracted Covid-19 in early 2021, becoming so ill that he was hospitalized, intubated, and put in an induced coma for three months. Halfway through, he suffered a stroke and significant brain bleeding. His doctors told his brother, Rey, they didn’t expect him to survive.
“It’s a miracle that I’m here talking to you,” Parlá, 49, told me last month, his voice still a strained rasp from the damage done by the breathing tube, though flying at its usual excited clip. “When I woke up it took a really long time to understand what had happened to me.”
Memory and resurrection are both at front of mind here. On a weekday afternoon, the hum of construction drones steadily downtown, the rapid development of the last decade continuing to revive central Detroit from decades of bankruptcy and population flight. A Gucci store is slated to open on a corner where even five years ago the thought of it would be absurd (it still is, though the absurdity now has a different flavor). But just five miles east, entire neighborhoods remain pocked by abandoned homes and ruinous storefronts — tracts of lots distinguishable only by the height of their overgrown weeds. Stretches of its avenues bear scars of Detroit’s dispossession: crumbling brickwork, weatherworn concrete, sun-bleached advertisements seized in time.
You don’t have to be from Detroit to know what this looks like. It’s familiar to anyone who lives in or has moved through places that exist on the periphery, neglected by its center. It’s certainly familiar to Parlá, who absorbs the visual signatures of dilapidation into his paintings, murals and sculpture. Threaded with calligraphy, they read as abstraction but can also be understood as landscapes, or an anthropological excavation of them.
He has located these textures around the world — in the Bronx, New York; Naples, Italy; Havana — translating these degraded environments into deeply felt portraits of human movements. Like Julie Mehretu, Parlá challenges the historical parameters of abstraction, but he works in a realist style, a focus that goes back to his earliest days of painting burners — large, elaborate wall works with aerosol — in Miami and Atlanta in the late 1980s and early ’90s. In terms of visual information, the wall, for Parlá, is of as crucial importance as the line or brush stroke or any other mark.
“Polarities” is the first body of work he has completed and exhibited since his hospitalization. In its mere existence, it defies his doctors’ prognosis that he would likely not be able to paint again. Not that his recovery was easy. Known for his dynamic style of mural making — leaping off scaffolding while keeping his brush in contact with the canvas to achieve continuous, loping arcs, as he did for “One: Union of the Senses” (2015), a 90-foot mural in the lobby of One World Trade Center, in Manhattan — Parlá found himself barely able to walk a few steps without being exhausted.
“Eventually one of the doctors brought me watercolors and watercolor paper, and I was able to do these tiny landscape paintings, and that really helped me to feel, ‘OK, I can still color and I can still make lines,’ but I had atrophy — my brother and one of the doctors would help me grasp brushes or pens because my hands didn’t have the strength,” he said. By the time he was discharged, in 2021, Parlá had been inside a hospital in New York for five months.
The day Parlá returned to his studio happened to be July 11, 2021, when huge anti-government protests erupted in Cuba, the first there in 27 years. Parlá, who was born in Miami to Cuban émigré parents, grew up moving between the United States mainland and Puerto Rico with an early awareness of political strife. Since 2020 he has worked with the artist-led activist group the Wide Awakes.
“It brought me back to the protests we were all part of in New York in 2020 and everything we were fighting for,” he said. “You saw an opposite side of that in Cuba where young artists were fighting for their freedom of expression. It was very emotional for me.” Detroit and Cuba represented, in his view, the extremes of capitalism and communism, systems that have colored Parlá’s life since childhood.
“One of my aunts was imprisoned in Cuba in the 1970s when a lot of political prisoners were given 10-, 15-year sentences,” he said. “It was always part of the culture; you knew you couldn’t say certain things. That hasn’t changed.” Indeed, one of the first places Parlá journeyed after his recovery was Cuba, in January 2022, and he returned in June. There he spoke with artists who have decided to remain, and who carefully make artworks to evade censorship and punishment.
Parlá was concerned he wouldn’t be able to paint with the energy and agility that has come to characterize his output. But the work in “Polarities” is at points the most vigorous he’s ever made. They thrum with riotous color and restive movement, the paint thick and drippy in places, rippling and gouged in others. In their fields you can locate any number of churning cataclysms — the 1967 Detroit Riots; the highway system that displaced Black neighborhoods years earlier; waves of displacement and migration.
There’s a sense of all the anger and frustration coursing through the paint, an accelerative thrust that feels impatient, as if time is running out. Parlá worked on the canvases simultaneously, arranged side by side, mixing colors without stopping. “It’s the concept of oneness, of interdependence, how we all rely on each other,” he said. “The paintings rely on each other to be a good body of work.” They are paintings that are alive to political resistance, but also resistance to death.
That quality of refusal can be traced to Parlá’s beginnings in art making. In many ways his mature work internalizes the graffiti tradition: its style, of course, but also its embrace of language (the work in “Polarities,” as in much of Parlá’s oeuvre, is layered with calligraphic glyphs and snatches of writing); its understanding of the way cities function as modes of communication; and, potently, its capacity to antagonize power structures.
Still, Parlá chafes at what he refers to as “the G-word.” He often invokes the storied writer Phase 2, a mentor, who suggested that referring to masterful forms of color and expression as “graffiti” was as inadequate as “calling a meteor a pebble.”
“Surfaces, whether they're walls or canvases or sculptural objects, work as palimpsests for him, and I think that’s where his practice as a writer, as a painter, these calligraphic, gestural marks have meaning,” said Michael Rooks, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, and the curator of the 2014 exhibition “José Parlá: Segmented Realities,” Parlá’s first major museum show.
“You can trace that impulse back to ancient wall writing,” Rooks continued. “If we think about other objects that evoke a similar social and cultural upheaval and transformation, like segments of the Berlin Wall, for example, they bear witness to history, with marks inscribed in their surface that had specific meanings for the viewer, for the maker, that may be lost.” Rooks considers Parlá a realist in this sense “because he is excavating our own experience” and invoking objects that are familiar, “that have layers of history.”
Parlá’s skill is finding dignity in the accidents of time, the stalactitic surfaces and loping marks of a city’s streetscape, the things that accumulate over time and are eventually lost to it.
Unsurprisingly, the restlessness that characterizes his paintings also translates to his schedule. He’s already at work on his next projects, presentations at the Brooklyn Museum and at Gana Art, in Seoul, as well as curating shows in Istanbul and Italy. Perhaps somewhat expectedly, he rejects that term, too: “I wouldn’t say a curator,” he laughed. “More like an anti-systematic operative.”
José Parlá: Polarities
Through Aug. 24, 2022 Library Street Collective, 1274 Library Street, Detroit, (313) 600-7443; lscgallery.com.