New York

José Parlá, Writers’ Bench: Grand Concourse and 149th Street, The Bronx, 2020, acrylic, ink, collage, enamel, plaster, and oil on canvas, 60 × 96".

José Parlá, Writers’ Bench: Grand Concourse and 149th Street, The Bronx, 2020, acrylic, ink, collage, enamel, plaster, and oil on canvas, 60 × 96".

José Parlá

Bronx Museum of the Arts

“It’s Yours,” José Parlá’s solo exhibition of recent paintings here, took its name from Bronx rapper T La Rock’s 1984 formative hip-hop single, a self-reflexive anthem that sets out the genre’s parameters and its promise of democratic permissiveness. It was a good analogue for Parlá’s practice, a style of Abstract Expressionism informed by both the energy of street life and the built environment of the street itself. Parlá, a tagger at heart (a selection of his early blackbooks are featured), works in what is sometimes called a postgraffiti mode but is probably better understood as gestural anthropology. As T La Rock prescribed, Parlá samples the very stuff of New York City, such as peeling paint, crumbling concrete, and oxidizing advertisements pasted one on top of another. In deteriorating, these ads achieve another life. To be clear, Parlá’s point of reference isn’t midtown. The artist’s tracings are of the periphery: the outer boroughs’ vast apartment blocks and corner bodegas—the parts of the city that can often seem to exist despite its ruthless cycles of neglect and gentrification. His visual language casts a devotional eye toward urban dilapidation and ephemerality; joy doesn’t exist without suffering, and Parlá’s work internalizes both. His large-scale paintings position the wall as living organism, their impasto surfaces and calligraphic gestures tracing the textures of neighborhoods that build up over time, dissolve, and recede into collective memory, evoking a full sweep of movements, both local and diasporic. They touch upon displacement, disenfranchisement, poverty, institutional racism, and a deeply felt sense of ownership, even if that ownership is more sentimental than deeded.

These ideas are intense, and the paintings, which are fully saturated and almost ecstatically chromatic, were intense to look at. Writers’ Bench: Grand Concourse and 149th Street, The Bronx (all works cited, 2020), a paean to the titular forum that developed in the 1970s in the eponymous subway station a few blocks from the museum—where style writers would convene to kibitz—is a crash of mottled pinks, safety orange, and darting line work. It looks the way an uptown 5 train sounds: like a reverie of chaos coming at full speed. Installed in the museum’s lobby, It’s Yours: The International Illegal Construct Against Indigenous People, a heroic panorama of torn and layered canvas, reads like an epic poem, progressing from loamy grays into electric bursts of reds, cobalts, yellows, and oranges; Parlá’s loping, looping gestures tell a tale as dramatic as any Diego Rivera fresco. Its dramatically frayed bottom edge suggests an excavation of an artifact of the city’s past, the kind paved over with cool indifference.

Graffiti’s progression from outlaw aesthetic to commodity fetish is of course long complete, so it’s a credit to Parlá that his work manages to feel earnest. His paintings scan as decay, but they’re new, vibrant. One way he develops his craggy facades—which glitter like diamond dust—is by combining plaster with various gel mediums and acrylic paint, then applying the mixture to the surfaces of his canvases with his hands. His works also reproduce tags from some of the elder statesmen of style writing, including Chino BYI and Coco 144, and echo the wisdom of mentors such as Phase 2, who said that referring to a major art form as “graffiti” is akin to “calling a meteor a pebble”; an allusion to this sentiment is scratched into one of the painting’s surfaces. Such gestures give Parlá’s works a beatific cast.

Public art is defined by its placement, but street art and specifically graffiti derive their power from openness. At any other institution, the promise of “It’s Yours” would risk being made a lie, its charge defused owing to the works’ being locked away behind glass while visitors are forced to pay an exorbitant entrance fee. Happily, the exhibition avoided that fate. Admission to the museum is free.