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A tribute to the streets: Inside José Parlá’s new show at the Bronx Museum

February 27, 2020 Scott Enman
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From painting murals on the walls of Miami under the alias “Ease,” to creating large-scale installations on the sides of buildings in Havana, José Parlá has always felt most comfortable working in the streets.

The Brooklyn-based artist takes inspiration, he said, from the work of everyday citizens — children and those looking to express themselves — who feel compelled to convert the city’s blank walls into canvases.

With his new exhibition, “It’s Yours,” now open at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Parlá succeeds in bringing the energy of the streets directly into the gallery.

“The roots about what my art is really about is people leaving their marks,” Parlá said. “Those marks multiply in this symphony, cacophony of what the cities are. When you’re walking around, you might take for granted what happened on a wall or on the sidewalk. It’s all of us leaving a trace and that trace is continuously part of our future. … It’s this sporadic germination.”

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The artist’s first solo show in New York City features several new large-scale paintings, murals and collages that pay tribute to the Bronx.

A museum guest looks at one of José Parlá’s paintings. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

The artwork depicts layers of scenes that one might see on the streets of the city: pieces of construction walls; bits of graffiti; ripped posters; gestural lines — speckled, smeared and splattered — evoking the work of hurried artists afraid of retribution, not afforded the time to carefully create lines.

“What happens with the walls of the city is people make their mark, they move on, other people come,” said the exhibit’s curator Manon Slome. “It’s this mine of information that piles up, that traces experience, that traces memory. [Parlá] reproduces in his paintings so much of what he sees on those walls and the feelings, sounds and sights here.”

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Parlá’s work details the suffering caused by redlining, displacement and gentrification in the Bronx, while uplifting street murals as art, not vandalism. The Bronx Museum’s universal free admission policy also fits into Parlá’s vision of art as a democratic outlet for the people.

Born in Miami in 1973 to Cuban immigrants, Parlá spent much of his youth enamored with hip-hop and graffiti. He noted that many New Yorkers moved to Miami, which he said felt like a sixth borough. The name of the exhibition is borrowed from a song by Bronx rapper T La Rock, who guaranteed his fans that no matter how famous he became, his work would always be for them.

“What I always felt about the song was that it was an invitation to do everything that you can do at your best level, and also to take ownership of what you do,” Parlá said.

José Parlá’s work wraps around the museum, inviting the public to enter the gallery. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Though physically inside the museum, the exhibition intertwines with the street. It fittingly begins directly in the lobby, visible from the ground-floor windows and just steps away from the public before slowly spreading out into a larger room.

The layers of geography within the building play an integral role in removing any barriers and linking the street to the museum. One piece even wraps around a corner and bleeds into the main gallery from the lobby, enticing viewers to move onward.

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“The idea is that it starts in the street, it comes into the lobby, which is the interim location between the public and the institutional part of the museum, and it invites people to take that journey into the exhibition,” Manon said.

Parlá also created a replica sidewalk square that he carved messages into — an urge that many New Yorkers surely have had when passing wet cement.

The exhibit fittingly sits beside Henry Chalfant’s “Art vs. Transit, 1977-1987,” which pays tribute to the graffiti artists who used subway cars as their canvas throughout the late 20th century.

“It’s Yours” will be on display through Aug. 16. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Parlá’s Brooklyn connections run deep. He lives in the borough, works in Gowanus and has done murals at Barclays Center, as well as in the lobby of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fisher Theater.

His pieces have also appeared at Art Basel, outside the Whitney Museum of American Art, and he created a 90-foot-long mural in the lobby of One World Trade Center.

“José Parlá: It’s Yours” is on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts through Aug. 16. Admission is free.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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