José Parlá. Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
by ANNA McNAY
The past few years have been something of a rollercoaster for the Bronx-based Cuban artist José Parlá (b1973, Miami). After falling ill with Covid, he became so unwell that he was rushed to hospital and put into an induced coma for four months. On coming round, the “reality” of his dreams had taken over from his actual reality. The whole experience, including his rehabilitation period, during which his hospital room was turned into a mini studio, with paper on the walls and Cuban music coming from his record player, fed into several series of work, of which Phosphene, now on show at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London, is the culmination.
The term “phosphene” – derived from the Greek phōs (light) + phainein (to show) – refers to the visual phenomenon that gives the impression of seeing light when your eyes are closed. These flashes of colour, dots, swirls and shapes take form on Parlá’s canvases, the result of a coming together of mind, body and breath. His work has always derived from writing and language, and Parlá, once a competitive breakdancer, is embedded in New York’s hip-hop and street-art culture, which he understands to be descended from a melting pot of African and Caribbean traditions. Just as these strands of his work bring together high and low forms of culture, so is the idea of phosphenes, as Parlá puts it, an “equaliser” – something everyone experiences and can relate to, no matter who they are or where they are from. The making of Parlá’s immersive series is a whole-body process for the artist, and they are certainly to be experienced “in the flesh” by the viewer, who, bathing in their phosphorescence, infuses the artistic mix with as much of their own radiating colour and personal story as they absorb and take away in their newly created memories.
José Parlá. Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
Studio International spoke to Parlá as his exhibition opened in London at the start of a busy Frieze week.
Anna McNay: Could you start by telling me a little about how and when this series of work – Phosphene – came about?
José Parlá: Sure. It’s something that has been in my mind for a few years. Even going back to when I was very young, I used to wonder what the little lights were inside my eyelids when I closed my eyes. It’s a vision everyone experiences, and I really like the fact that it’s a way of connecting with pretty much everyone. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, or what age or colour you are, we all have these closed-eye visions, these abstractions that are part of our sight, how light filters through, even though our eyes are closed. When I was recovering from having been very sick with Covid, and having come out of a coma, I started remembering the dreams I had had.
They kept coming back to me as my reality, being in the hospital for that long, and experiencing hallucinations from the painkillers. The hospital room would be pretty bright sometimes, especially in the morning when the sun came in, and I would close my eyes and see loads of phosphenes. When I was recovering and doing physical therapy at the hospital, they brought me watercolours, acrylic paint and paper. My brother, Rey, and one of the doctors thought it would be a good idea to get me painting again, to get the mechanics of my hands working, because I had very bad atrophy. I had lost a lot of weight, almost 30kg (4st 10lb), and I was very weak. Painting really brought me joy. A friend brought me a record player, and my brother brought my records. I had a miniature studio in the hospital. I was there for two months after waking up from the coma, which had lasted four months.
José Parlá. Layered Electric Retinal Waves, 2023. Mixed media on canvas, 182.9 x 243.8 cm (72 x 96 in). Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
I started making work, several series, and eventually I got stronger and went back to Brooklyn and my studio. I would say that Phosphene is a chapter in a longer series, which started out with Ciclos: Blooms of Mold, which is at the Brooklyn Museum, and deals with landscapes representative of life and death. The canvases are divided right across the middle. The upper part is the sky, representative of life, using the various colours that the sky goes through at sunset and sunrise. The bottom part is representative of mould, of a network of mycelium. To put it simply, mycelium provides nutrients to roots of trees and allows them to grow. If one tree is sick, the mycelium knows, and is able to gather nutrients from a healthy tree. It’s like a community of mycelium, and, in that way, it’s representative of my community – my family and my friends – who were there for me and helped me stay alive. They got me to the hospital, and they prayed for me.
Following that, I did a series called Polarities, which is more political. It was exhibited in Detroit at Library Street Collective, and it deals with the political polarisation we’re experiencing in the world today. After that, I did an exhibition titled Breathing, at Gana Art in Korea, which dealt with the question that persisted in my mind of what I would do with the breath that I have left. When you come so close to death, you think about the time you have left and what will you do with it.
José Parlá. Pensive Shadows, 2023. Mixed media on canvas, 101.6 x 152.4 cm (40 x 60 in). Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
After that, I was continuously painting, and I had this urgency to tie all my ideas together. Phosphene came about because I have a lot of sunlight in my studio, and I was experiencing flashbacks to my dreams from the coma, and I decided to put that into these paintings. But Phosphene became something more, like its own language. It was like painting these arterial lines and imagining light passing through the skin, the arteries, the blood and our minds, giving us imagination. The paintings became a way to think about the most abstract as a sort of equaliser. There’s always rhetoric to explain all the devastation in the world. We can talk about history and point fingers at who did this and who did that, but it all becomes very abstract to me. We need to evolve to a place where violence stops and peace prevails. The paintings are about an ambiguous realm from which we can imagine a better world.
AMc: Were the four months you spent in a coma a direct result of Covid?
JP: Yes. I got Covid in February 2021, and I was put into an induced coma because I could no longer breathe. They did a tracheotomy, intubated me with a ventilator and kept me alive in a coma for four months. You can hear how raspy my voice is. Part of that is because the intubation damaged my vocal cords. It’s really a miracle that I made it, because everyone else on my ward died. The doctors couldn’t explain why that was. I was in very bad shape. I was in worse shape than some of the other people who didn’t make it. I had a stroke at one point while in the coma. Things got very complicated. Eventually, when I woke up, I thought I had just come back from a very long flight. Because of the stroke, the doctors didn’t want to cause me more anxiety by talking about a coma, so they let me process things slowly, thinking that my dreams were my reality. It was very bizarre because, in my dreams, I was a hotel owner, who had been kidnapped by the mafia in Hong Kong, had survived a tsunami in Japan, and had somehow made it to Australia. From Australia, I made it to Cuba, and from Cuba, I went back to New York. It was so bizarre and so unexplainable, but I thought it was all real, and that that was the reason I was in the hospital.
José Parlá. The Eye of Adventures, 2023. Mixed media on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm (60 x 60 in). Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
AMc: Did you not have any idea who you were?
JP: I knew who I was, but I wasn’t José Parlá the artist. I was a hotel owner, and I was worried about whether the guests were staying, whether the rooms were nice, and whether they had enjoyed their food. My brother was not allowed to tell me that it was all just a dream, because they didn’t want me to have a shock. I had to work with psychologists to get back to who I really am.
AMc: Did it gradually dawn on you, or did they have to tell you in the end?
JP: They told me through a series of exercises. At one point, they thought I might be paralysed, so they talked me through it. I worked with a psychologist and a physical therapist to get me to understand a lot of things about how much I had changed. It is incredible work that doctors and nurses, physical therapists and psychologists do to rehabilitate you from such a state. I have an incredible relationship with my doctors. We have become great friends, and that has informed my work at various subconscious levels and different realms of understanding. Photography and music also really helped me. My brother would bring me photographs of our childhood and exhibitions and books, and he talked to me about what I do and helped me remember who I was.
AMc: Did painting come back to you naturally, when you were brought the materials, or did you have to relearn it?
JP: It came to me naturally. I just started painting. My brother covered the hospital walls with white paper. At first, I couldn’t walk at all, because my lungs were so damaged. I could barely take two steps. But, over a period of two weeks, I was gradually able to get closer to the wall. That was my goal: to be able to do some drawings and paintings. It was a real crazy moment, and I feel like I’m still processing everything now. But the best way for me to process is through painting and music.
José Parlá. Refraction Hand Style, 2023. Mixed media on canvas, 182.9 x 152.4 cm (72 x 60 in). Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
AMc: Through listening to music or through making music?
JP: I listen to music, and I make music. I organise musical events. Last night, for example, I brought six musicians from Cuba to play live here in London. They played a traditional style of Cuban music, known as rumba, which is just drums and voice. I think of this type of music as medicine, and I want to share it with people. I also collect records, and, when I was in hospital, those records were my medicine. It’s part of my practice. I look at it as like sharing the cultural information and DNA of who I am – a Cuban person from New York – and how that influences my painting. It helps me move forward and get stronger each day, and hopefully it is planting seeds that will help other people.
AMc: I read somewhere that you used to be part of New York’s hip-hop culture, but that sounds quite different from the music you are talking about here.
JP: I still am part of hip-hop culture, and I have a vast collection of hip-hop records. But, since I was a kid, I have also been part of Cuban culture. My parents are Cuban, our neighbours are Cuban. My collection of records started out because my father had records, and, when he passed away, I found that spending time with his music connected me to him. Whenever I went to Cuba, I would collect more records, and it became a beautiful habit and connection to the culture. I believe that Caribbean music from Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, etc has had a tremendous influence on hip-hop culture. Some of the early godfathers of hip-hop culture came from the Caribbean, moved to the Bronx, and created hip-hop music. If you listen to reggae, it’s all African drums. I remember recently hearing an interview, where they were asking an artist where hip-hop comes from, and they talked about it having been born in the Bronx. In one way, I agree, because the hip-hop that we know now was born in the Bronx, but its roots are from the various countries in Africa – Nigeria, Gabon, Ghana, Cameroon and more – that were colonised, and whose people were enslaved and taken to the Caribbean. Cuba was one of the greatest ports, so were Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti … The cultures of the different religious tribal groups were mixed with the colonisers’ cultures, so you have the mixtures of music, with drums from the different African styles, and chants and poetry from various other countries, in Spanish, French or English. Over the years, first we had jazz music and then we got hip-hop.
José Parlá. Seeing is Believing, 2023. Mixed media on canvas, 182.9 x 365.8 cm (72 x 144 in). Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
AMc: You have spoken before about synaesthesia. How would you describe the relationship between your art and the music? Does your painting respond to the music you are listening to?
JP: I think it happens simultaneously. You’re in the studio, you’re playing some music, you set yourself up for painting, and, well, you know, painting is a struggle. Sometimes you have a clear vision of what you want to do, but when I don’t have a clear vision, I just get to work. I just go at it. And it’s when you let yourself go that synaesthesia happens. It comes from this overwhelming feeling. There’s probably a lot of anxiety; maybe there’s even joy. Maybe I’m enjoying the music, and maybe I’m dancing while I’m painting, because the strokes and the gesture require that the body moves in a specific, eloquent way, the way calligraphy does. My work is based on calligraphy but allows itself to go into abstract gesture when I combine my bodily movement with my mental capacity to make a stroke. Synaesthesia is when you feel that all your senses are unified, and that you can almost taste the paint through your fingertips while holding the brush. You can hear the music through your feet, and your heart can smell the aura of the room. It is like a very convoluted, beautifully mixed sense of being. I paint best when that happens. It’s not like you can just switch it on and it happens. It just happens because you get into it. I don’t know. I would imagine it’s maybe like athletes training so hard for so many years, and then there’s that moment where it just hits, and they take off. It’s like the body can do, and the mind can guide, and the heart, well, everything is one. But we forget that. When I talk about synaesthesia, people think it sounds whimsical or abstract to say that the senses are united, but we are in one body, and that body is the mind, the heart, the soul, the breathing, the blood, the fingertips, the cells, the hair – it’s all one. And here we are in this atmosphere. It’s pretty magical.
José Parlá. Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
AMc: You were talking before about working in your studio. Am I wrong in thinking that the Phosphene works were made outdoors?
JP: There were two series in Phosphene: one series I started in Miami, outdoors, and I showed that in Hong Kong, and one is now on view here in London, which I made in my studio in Brooklyn.
AMc: Have you always worked like this in series – and series within series?
JP: I often work with deliberate themes for exhibitions. And if you look back 20 years, there is a cohesion, or a kind of bridge from one exhibition to the next. But I would definitely say that this work I have made since my recovery from the coma is the most cohesive series, the most purposely interconnected.
AMc: You have spoken about phosphenes being the vision we all have when we close our eyes. I think I mostly see patterns, but sometimes there are recognisable images, too. What specifically do you see? Is it just light? Is it abstract? Or is there any recognisable imagery from your hospital dreams?
JP: With phosphenes specifically, I only see abstraction. The mind can certainly imagine or remember memories. But when I close my eyes, I just see abstraction. It’s like an animation of blinking colours, which fade away rapidly into darkness. Not a lot of people are familiar with the term “phosphene”, but when I tell them what it means, everyone says: “Ah, yes, I have been wondering what that was since I was a little kid.” Some tell me how they used to play around with it, and one guy told me he would put pressure on his eyeballs because then he could see more colours. I really love that. It’s like a discovery that I’m sharing, because it’s not a word that you use every day – it’s more like a clinical or scientific word, but it really is an equaliser, because everyone has phosphenes, even blind people.
José Parlá. Sensory Landscape, 2023. Mixed media on canvas 101.6 x 152.4 cm (40 x 60 in). Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
AMc: What dictates the scale and the format of your paintings? I noticed some of them are circular.
JP: One of the paintings in the show is a tondo, yes. I wanted to make a reference to the eye. It’s like a beautiful punctuation mark in a sentence. The show is flowing, you’re looking at the pieces, and then suddenly you have an eyeball, a punctuation mark, a moment to rest that is different from all the others. I really like that.
AMc: You mentioned calligraphy before, and now you are referencing punctuation. Can you say a bit more about the role that language, or writing, plays in your work?
JP: My work has always been based on language. I grew up as a writer, writing and painting on trains and walls, and that specific style of art focuses deeply on the letter form and calligraphy. As I progressed, and as I went through my own personal evolution, I wanted to bring script and that telegraphic mode of writing into my painting and storytelling. Abstract storytelling is for anyone from anywhere. You don’t have to be from a specific country or speak a certain language to read my paintings. It is more like reading through feeling. You are aware, as a viewer, that it looks like writing, but it’s illegible. Your imagination tells you what you think it is, and so, really, it’s telling your own story back to you.
José Parlá. Amorphous Waves, 2023. Mixed media on canvas, 182.9 x 121.9 cm (72 x 48 in). Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
AMc: Do you have a specific routine or way of working?
JP: No. I prepare all my materials in advance. If I have seen certain colours that influenced me, which I want to paint with, then my process is to begin mixing those colours. I’m really into mixing colours that are original. I don’t want to paint like any other painter or use colours that anybody else would use. Every single colour I use is mixed by my own feelings and my own hands. I have large tables that become my palettes.
AMc: Does this mean you won’t ever be able to recreate exactly the same colour?
JP: I can recreate it if I want to. If I have a pink or a purple I used two weeks ago, and, when I come back to the work, I need to make it again, it’s like I somehow know how to mix it. I don’t need to write down measurements or a recipe. I just look at the colour I want, and I get it just right on the palette.
AMc: I guess it’s a bit like producing sounds or words. It’s instinct.
JP: It is, yes. And practice.
AMc: You currently hold the Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship in Art, which supports the development of new or ongoing projects exploring themes of representation and social justice. Can you say something about your work for this?
JP: Yes, this year I was awarded the Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship, which is a very prestigious honour. I love Gordon Parks’ photography, of course. The foundation has allowed me to go through the archives of a particular body of photos that Parks took in 1958 in Cuba for Life magazine. These photos are not widely known. They haven’t been published. The colours and textures and people in the photos are very special. I’m working on a project for an exhibition with them in September 2024.
José Parlá. Arterial Visions, 2023. Mixed media on canvas, 182.9 x 152.4 cm (72 x 60 in). Photo: Tyler Haft, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.
AMc: What about your public art projects? Do you want to mention any of these?
JP: Sure. A recent project that is about to be opened to the public, and that I’m really excited about, was a collaboration with the architectural firm Snøhetta on a New York City public library in Far Rockaway that we call the Writer’s Library. We worked on this project for about seven years. The library is a magnificent glass building, on which I wrote layers and layers of the story of the neighbourhood. Although the sentences are in an indecipherable code, the words become a statement that carries a story that can become personal to the viewer. It pays homage to the artists who came from Far Rockaway and to the writing culture of New York City. Actually, it mixes two different types of writing culture: the writing culture of the subway artists who came out of the explosion of urban arts in the 1970s and 80s, but also the writing culture of literature, because there have been Nobel Prize-winners from the neighbourhood. There were also theatres there, back before the theatre district was in Manhattan. There’s a long history of storytelling and of writing. That’s why it’s called the Writer’s Library. So, like Phosphene, this work is an equaliser. Through the reflections of the glass facade, the viewer becomes part of the experience. It’s really beautiful.
• José Parlá: Phosphene is at Ben Brown Fine Arts, London, until 16 November 2023.
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