Off the wall

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 2009, 12:00am

For Jose Parla, walls are more than enclosures or supporting structures - they're repositories of the memories of a city and its inhabitants.

'Every wall contains a story, a history,' the artist says. 'Many things have been written on them, and many things have been stuck on them and torn off. Many people have made marks on them with a fingernail, a pen, a key. The gesture of each person leaves a story behind. There's a beauty in that - for me, each mark represents a person.

'The walls are the starting points for my paintings.'

Parla is one of New York's most interesting and original artists. He may wax lyrical about walls, but there are many entry points into his layered, abstract-looking artwork.

The dynamic script that leads the eye across the canvases is reminiscent of graffiti art, the style in which he began his artistic career. The texture and kinetics of the layers of paint echo the work of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. The rich colours and imaginary landscapes are reminiscent of the German expressionists.

Parla's new works are currently on display at the Ooi Botos Gallery in his first Hong Kong solo exhibition, Reading Through Seeing.

Parla, who was born in Puerto Rico to a Cuban family, has his own definition of his artworks. He calls them 'memory documents' or 'segmented realities' - palimpsests that reveal more information with each layer of paint.

For him, they are a visual expression of the way we store our past. 'Sigmund Freud said that the way that memory works is similar to a palimpsest. Our mind is just like one of those Magic Pad drawing games,' he says.

'Our memories are stored in the wax slab underneath, while our new experiences are written on the plastic sheet above. That's why my paintings consist of layers. Layers give a painting a history, and also refer to the way that our memory works.'

The textures are important. Parla builds his work layer by layer and sometimes adds plaster to the paint, which he sands down to give an aged, distressed look.

'I introduced the textures because it reminded me of the way the environment attacks a wall - the deterioration, the ageing, that happens because of the weather,' he says.

'Walls in cities are always deteriorating. Posters are torn off, people write on them. Some of the textures of my works are based on actual examples of deterioration I've seen.'

Cities decay in different ways, he says. 'In London, you get moss, which you don't get in New York. But Havana has the most deterioration. It's never been painted. You can see Coca-Cola advertising from the 1930s showing through the layers. There is real history on those walls.'

Parla moved to Miami in the 1980s, when he was nine. He turned to graffiti art as a form of rebellion and self-expression. 'I'm from a Cuban family, and I was trying to fit into American culture. It was very confusing for me at that age. But I found an escape in underground culture,' he says.

'I was interested in hip hop culture, punk rock culture, skating culture ... everything that was underground was interesting to me.

'For 10 to 15 years, I was doing traditional graffiti in the streets, painting walls, rooftops, trains - everything that you can think of. It was a game, a sport - an artistic sport. During that time, I became interested in painting on canvas, but there wasn't an opportunity.'

He was inspired by the fact that graffiti artists such as the legendary Lee Quinones, now a friend of Parla's, had gained the respect of the art establishment by exhibiting in galleries. 'I'd heard that in New York - and in Japan - street artists were showing in galleries. I wanted to do that, too, But there was no [such] opportunity ... in Miami,' he says.

Parla moved to New York in the 1990s and found success at the start of this decade. Recent exhibitions include Layered Days in New York and Adaptation/Translation in London.

He wanted to put his work in galleries to preserve it. Like the walls he loves so dearly, graffiti art deteriorates with the elements. Unlike many graffiti artists who made the transition from street to gallery, Parla's style evolved away from airbrush lettering and bright colours. But, he says, his lettering - which is now twisted and stretched into abstract forms - is a connection to where he started.

'The lettering leads the viewer's eyes into and out of the painting. My parents and my grandparents had beautiful writing. They helped me a lot when I began drawing.'

Parla's work has an international context. He likes to travel to different cities to find inspiration, and once recreated the idea of a grand tour. 'Through my travelling I've noticed there's a similar dialogue taking place on walls around the world,' the artist says.

'People react to them in a similar way. I photograph a lot of walls and remember the feeling of the neighbourhoods they're in. There's something political about how I see them. This has translated back into my paintings. The paintings tell the story of the places I have visited through the walls I have seen.'

Sometimes Parla will rip something off a wall and bring it home; in a corner of his studio sits a pile of detritus stripped from walls around the globe - posters rigid with plaster and glue, and a flyer from the London Evening Standard newspaper. Some of these artefacts find their way into his works.

'Customs often ask me why I'm bringing trash back into the States,' he says with a grin. 'I explain to them that I'm an artist, and they laugh and let me through.'

Parla is spending a couple of weeks in Hong Kong and hopes that he'll find some mural inspiration in the city.

'I think there should be some interesting walls,' he says.

Reading Through Seeing, 5 Gresson St, Wan Chai. Opening hours: Tue-Fri, 11.30am-3pm, 6pm-8pm; Sat, 11am-6pm. Inquiries: 2527 9733. Ends July 11