José Parlá, Amistad América

José Parlá, Amistad América, 2018. Acrylic, plaster, and ink on canvas, 304 x 1947.75 inches. Commission, Landmarks, The University of Texas at Austin, 2018. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

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audio transcript

Hello my name is Carlo McCormick, I am a critic and curator based in New York and I’ve known José Parlá now for many years and been able to follow his work. So I thought I’d talk to you a little about his piece here, Amistad América, that he’s done for the Landmarks commission which is part of The University of Texas.

José Parlá speaks from a very personal history but it’s a history in many ways we share. So in his particular case, he is born a Cuban-American and he’s raised very early on in Puerto Rico and then he goes to Miami and he accrues all these different cultures along the way. He starts as a kid in Miami making his marks on the walls and like a true artist he is not just satisfied with getting his name up. He starts to contemplate this language and how it can communicate in other ways and not just about the self but in a way that draws us in. The skills he learns come out in a really fine art way in what we call composition. So if you can step back as far as you can, consider how these colors echo around the work; how there is a bit of red here and a bit of red there; how the darker colors coming in or the blue or the orange colors for the land and the blues for the sky and the water. It’s really complicated and really intricate process. Something that we can call almost a dance.

Jose thinks very much about this space because we are now underground aren’t we? So he’s thinking about the history of cave painting. It’s hardwired in us, this idea of everywhere we go we try to tell a story, we try to express who we are, we try simply say “I was here. This is my mark and this is what I’m leaving behind.” 

Part of the history of mark-making is that it speaks to the eternal but it lives in the ephemeral. I think one of the feelings we can get from this is kind of abrading, weathering, and tiring of these images; how they exist with the land and how they exist with the walls. If you think that part of what goes on with graffiti is the constant going over of each other’s work. So it kind of becomes this dialogue between all the different hands that are there between the forces that eradicate it—whether they are other humans or nature itself.

It’s very much a conversation, his work. It comes from a very personal place. As kind of an empathic communicator he wants very much to engage with the site specificity. We are at the corner of Martin Luther King, Boulevard and Guadalupe. These are, for him, traces of the history of América. The América actually has an accent over the e, so he doesn’t mean the America with a capital A flag waving kind of America, he means all of the Americas. This conversation he is bringing to us is very much about all the people who have been through this land and where they have come from. And if you think about the way these lines are curling and this kind of map making structures in here, you get a sense that is also a conversation about how people travel through space, about how this geo-political map we have is only part of the picture. We’ve accumulated this rich history because of our migrations. And so you can actually see, if you look around, you might see the word Austin in here. If you go up the balcony you can really get up close to this mural and see the types of textures he’s creating to evoke the land; to evoke how we are mapmaking upon this place; by what we do, by what we leave behind, by this collective history, how we are creating a bigger narrative of who we are. Which is a very important thing to consider at this time. 

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José Parlá, Amistad América, 2018.

American, born 1973

Multimedia artist José Parlá finds inspiration in the history and experience of urban environments. His work is characterized by exuberant compositions that feature multilayered viscous surfaces and overlapping arcs of script. Amistad América is Parlá’s most ambitious project to date. It is comprised of typical strata, including variegated collage, dense pigments, and calligraphic strokes. At the same time the mural’s scale and metaphoric complexity are unprecedented.

Parlá began painting as an adolescent, experimenting with graffiti. What he learned would inform his mature artistic practice, such as how to create compositions on an architectural scale and the value of cultivating a signature style of handwriting. In addition to mastering the technical agility and sheer speed required for clandestine street painting, Parlá also developed an appreciation for the rigor of physical performance and an awareness that his body could translate the rhythms of music into visual expressions. Amistad América emerges from all these discoveries.

Equally significant, Parlá acquired a lifelong affinity for walls: as a substrate for painting, as witness to history, and as cultural metaphor. He takes photographs of walls he discovers around the globe and finds inspiration in their layered topographies. In their scarred and decayed surfaces, he recognizes our innate drive to make marks—a lineage that spans from primeval cave paintings to contemporary urban scrawls. For Parlá, walls contain geographic microcosms that reveal city grids and the borders between nations, as well as the traces of industry, trade, and migration.

Referring to his paintings as palimpsests or diaries, Parlá uses paint strokes to record his associations and impressions of places. Amistad América renders Austin through his eyes, with a palette that evokes its vast skies, abundant nature, and pulsing urban core. The painting suggests a continental map and routes that connect Austin to a much larger ecology. It also contains fragments of calligraphic lettering, including three key words partially obscured by thick masses of color: Austin, Guadalupe, and King. These not only locate the mural physically at the intersection of Austin’s Guadalupe Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but also acknowledge its symbolic position as a place of Latinx and African American history and culture.

Amistad América offers a sweeping visual landscape that conjures Austin itself while situating the city within the larger geopolitics of the Americas. The title makes that connection concrete: La Amistad was a nineteenth-century Spanish trading ship that plied the Caribbean. In 1839 its African slave cargo famously mutinied, eventually re-establishing their liberty. Parlá chose the word both to commemorate this turbulent history and to celebrate its conciliatory and optimistic resonance: from Spanish, Amistad América translates to Friendship America. 

José Parlá, Amistad América, 2018. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.
José Parlá, Amistad América, 2018. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Location: Robert B. Rowling Hall (RRH) Level B4

GPS: 30.282218, -97.741398