Surface Tensions: On José Parlá and Mark Bradford

By Pete L’OfficialSeptember 10, 2011

Mark Bradford by Christopher Bedford
José Parlá: Walls, Diaries, and Paintings

The Devil is Beating His Wife  (detail) © Mark Bradford

ADMIRERS OF THE DECAYING WALL, the crumbling edifice, and the forgotten ruin are many, and you can always count on a masonry enthusiast for a fancy prose style. But if you want to find a true poet of dereliction — a troubadour of the trash heap, even — you could do a lot worse than starting with Baudelaire.

In his 1851 essay, "On Wine and Hashish," the poet wrote of a city-walker who stalks the street rather than strolling it as his dandyish flâneur might, and more out of necessity than a desire for detached, delighted observation: the rag picker.

Here is a man whose task it is to gather the detritus of a day in the capitol. Everything the great city throws away, everything it loses, everything it disdains, everything it breaks, he catalogs and collects. He consults the archives of debauchery, the clutter of refuse. He makes a selection, an intelligent choice. Like a miser gathering up a treasure trove, he gathers garbage for the god of Industry to chew over and transform into objects of use or pleasure.

Baudelaire's attraction to the rag pickers's daily trudge was born out of admiration. He saw their practice as analogous to the poet's, who might spend "[an] entire day wandering in search of rhymes." But the rag pickers's "project" of scavenging - which of course to them was no joy, just everyday life - takes on an even deeper air of solemnity and grace when one thinks of them as archivists of urban ruins, smartly sorting the previously-owned material of life, foraging for what we've left behind, what has become extinct, outmoded, or unloved, finding proof of where we lived and the stories that we told about ourselves, and evidence of ways we didn't want to be anymore or have simply just forgotten that we once were. When things fall apart, you want those who pick up after you to have excellent curatorial taste.


The artist José Parlá has been called a flâneur, an archaeologist, a documentarian, a calligrapher, a historical landscape painter, an archivist, even an alchemist. His artistic admixture admits all of those designations to varying degrees, but without the specific context of the city - its walls, its neighborhoods, its histories - from which he draws his inspiration, all of them are meaningless. It is the city street that is the great subject of his paintings: streets bounded by walls that shelter and confine and eventually act as canvas, recording the shouts and whispers of those who walked them.

Parlá (whose new show, "Character Gestures," opened yesterday (September 9th, 2011) at OHWOW Gallery in Los Angeles and runs through October 22nd) was born in 1973 in Miami to Cuban émigrés who moved him briefly to Puerto Rico and then back to Miami in the early 1980s. Growing up as a teenager at that time, the call of hip-hop - itself born in the Bronx, and bred everywhere restlessly imaginative kids could "get over" by writing on walls, spinning records, rapping over them or dancing to them - was one to which Parlá coukdn't help but respond. It was graffiti, though, that Parlá most gravitated toward, writing the name "Ease" (which still occasionally makes its way into his work) on walls and trains and all over the precious black books that graf writers treasured and shared with each other like bibles of style.

But by the time Parlá had acquired a suitable handle and some paint, graffiti had already evolved by remarkable degrees of complexity from its embryonic beginnings, when a Greek kid from Washington Heights named Demetrius decided to marry his nickname — TAKI — to his street number — 183rd — emulating another kid who lived 20 blocks north (JULIO 204). TAKI 183 was born, and almost in an instant, New York youths were testifying to their existence on any available surface. Though graffiti would push far beyond such simplistic renderings, its essence remained Janus-faced: proudly shouting its neighborhood bona fides to anyone who'd look or listen, yet yearning to be seen and heard as far away from that point of origin as possible. Your name is your name — "THE NAME," as Norman Mailer was made to understand by his teenaged subjects in his landmark (and remarkably early) essay "The Faith of Graffiti" in Jon Naar's 1974 book of the same name - but it's the fact that it was your name on their name, your name over their name — "over the subway manufacturer, the Transit Authority, the city administration," as Mailer wrote — that mattered. What Parlá archives in his large-format mixed-media paintings are these informal, occasionally endangered, always contingent encounters.

An example: The quote-unquote villain of the classic 1983 graffiti documentary, Style Wars, is a tall, mustachioed, and rangy fellow with "Lucille Ball hair," and an unsettling penchant for avoiding eye contact who goes by the name of CAP. At a pace that might most charitably be termed adagio, CAP explains to his interviewer how little he cares about the "art" of graffiti, preferring to write his name on, and over, as many surfaces - and crucially, other writers' masterpieces — as possible. His only 'faith' lies in the desire for "more."

This is the graffiti writer's melancholic, antagonistic reality: every day, his work is erased, destroyed, or washed away, and almost always intentionally. Parlá's paintings are, in his own words, "time capsules," but ones designed to preserve not one original, unsullied state, but the near-entirety of states of a street corner across its lifespan. A prototypical Parlá like DeKalb Avenue Station (2010), a riot of paint, plaster, calligraphic script, and collage is partly the result of posters collected by the artist over the past ten years around his adopted home neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. The painting, like the place after which it is named, is the result of time's layering, the transparencies and obscurities of history, and the subjective reassemblage of ten years of fragmented views.

Parlá's first monograph Walls, Diaries, and Paintings is, fittingly, itself a crucial document of the artist's process and philosophy, as though the threat of disappearance or erasure hung over Parlá's canvas work as well. Essays by Greg Tate, Michael Betancourt, Isolde Brielmaier, and a foreword by Bryce Wolkowitz — at whose gallery Parlá showed this past spring, occasioning the publication of the catalogue — suggest both gently theoretical and more powerfully historical registers in which to receive Parlá's paintings. Betancourt writes urgently and cogently of Parlá's relationship to and understanding of the urban built environment:

Cities are unnatural environments - they are built, they develop. In them human action is negentropic: it acts to redo everything time undoes using a process, like the layering of a pearl, which entombs decay within a matrix of renewal. It is a mirror image of the disorganization common to all types of entropy. José Parla's alchemy of public space transplanted to the gallery makes these connections between the layering of time and the decay those layers encapsulate explicitly a spectacular experience.

Betancourt goes on to draw direct and persuasive parallels to the décollage of Mimmo Rotella and Cy Twombly's famed calligraphic mark-making and most perceptively to another artist similarly fascinated with entropy, alchemical practices and the walls that surround and divide us, Gordon Matta-Clark.

Parlá also includes his own rather brief artist's statement, titled "Research and Memory," in the catalogue, and coming, as it does, before a welcome wealth of photographs of his paintings, they are fitting parting words before the reader can indulge in the richness of the artist's visual output. In it, he invents his own term for his work: "memory documents." One might, then, think of Parlá's painting as achieving a kind of memory that we only wish we had. Indeed, the artist's own descriptions of his work (cited in Tate's essay) as "a segmented reality" and as revelations of the "memory in the walls" put one in the mind of Bill Pullman's character Fred Madison in Lost Highway: "I like to remember things my own way...How I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened." Our recall will forever be imperfect - which perhaps is a boon to us, not a failing - but Parlá's paintings allows us to see, all in the same space, more of what we was once there but is no longer, and the many places we've been but have simply forgotten.


Mark Bradford, too, has an invented term for the material from which he draws a great portion of his paintings: "merchant posters." A self-described "paper chaser" - a term which, in Bradford's South Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park, might have more currency as referring to currency - Bradford mines, or rather, scavenges, the walls of his community for advertising and found printed matter, and uses it to cover and re-cover often gigantic canvases with bits and swatches of paper and mason string (often then pulled up, creating rifts where before there were ridges) and only very rarely, paint.

Being a painter that doesn't paint is, perhaps, the least of all stereotype-dispelling curiosities about the 6'8" African American artist. Playing basketball - or rather, continually refusing to pick up the game, even at the behest of a lifetime's worth of needy coaches who saw only his height, as he remembered during an artist's talk for his show at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art in November 2010 - is another. (If you've seen his 2003 video, "Practice" - where he shoots hoops while wearing a familiar, though self-made, purple-and-gold tank top attached to a massively billowing hoop skirt - you would know this. It's as pointed a rejoinder to those who'd expect every tall black man to have a wicked jumpshot as any.) Indeed, in his early career Bradford - the proud son of a hairdresser - was known for arranging lightly singed, permanent wave end papers from beauty shops into undulating swells and surges, both gentle and propulsive. This gorgeous monograph is equally generous in displaying this early work alongside his more massively-scaled cartographic pieces with a diversely themed array of essay contributions from curator Christopher Bedford, Hilton Als, Robert Storr, Richard Shiff, and Katy Sigel, and two illuminating conversations with Bradford and Carol S. Eliel and Hamza Walker, respectively.

A few of the essays initially concern themselves with where Bradford fits in to the history of abstraction (read: if you thought we were done with Clement Greenberg and arguing over whether such a continuum could even exist - far from it!), but once each writer encounters Bradford's own delightful response to the question, they flower with new insight and sharp readings. In short: he doesn't care. As Bradford so casually puts it, "[T]he conventional Euro-American narrative of abstraction's not my struggle." This is not to say that Bradford is ignorant or unmindful of art history or theory. (Bradford's education at CalArts, "sitting with 18 year-olds straight out of high school" while he himself entered at the age of 30, certainly supplied him with weighty armfuls of theory.) But as with Parlá, Bradford's inspiration, and indeed the materials he uses to make his art, must exist out in the world first:

I do not like conversations about Winsor & Newton and surface and transparency and luminosity and glazing. No. I'm like: Go find it. It has to exist somewhere out there; go find it. What painters fetishize - surface and translucence - I learned all about that through architecture and the sides of buildings. I understand transparency because of the erosion of paper. What fascinates me about surface is the way in which paper creates depth, but at the same time it still has its singular form. It's one complete thing on top of another... With paint, the pigments actually commingle, and I don't like to do commingling. I like the rigidness of singularness; the commingling happens by a determined gesture that I do, or by weather or age or erosion.

Although it's debatable whether Bradford is even a painter at all, considering most of his work is built through collage, this would not be an interesting debate. What is interesting and important about Bradford's work is what defines Parlá's work as well: its emphasis on what Robert Storr calls in his monograph essay the "trenchant groundedness" and "absolute locality" of Bradford's materials and working process. Both artists transport us to an earlier, more innocent time in the city. Both are attracted to graffiti for its simultaneously public-and-private language, as Bradford observes: "Graffiti is interesting to me because it's in the public domain but it's full of secrets, and unless you're part of that system, you can't unlock those secrets." Parlá's work reminds us that graffiti was about advertising a name and aplace. The question for Bradford, too, has less been one about "methods of representation" writ large than about "repping" for the local, the public, the factual, and the geographical. As he notes in a wide-ranging and entertaining interview with Hamza Walker:

The merchant posters break it down. They always make everything feel urgent and get your attention really fast. I realized I needed to go where I found them. I got it on a pole - where's the pole? The pole is on the street, but what street is it? The street has a name, and what happened on the street five years ago is different from what's happening now. The merchant posters were on these fenced empty lots where buildings were burnt down during the '92 riots.

Bradford is, as both Storr and Bedford observe, a descendant of abstract expressionism who could care less about sublimity or primal forms emerging from the psyche or the collective unconscious - rather, the kind of "abstraction" that concerns him, as Katy Siegel observes, is any situation "that is too complicated for existing categories, for a system of classification that separates things that actually interact." Much like a city, or a neighborhood.


Bradford and Parlá collect and transform what to date has defined and sustained our cities, preserving what we often don't even know we're losing. What accretes, what accumulates on our walls is there for an instant before it's papered over, or washed out, or before it crumbles to the ground. In an interview with Carol S. Eliel, Bradford expresses regret that the world of found objects in 1960s New York that was available to artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns is now lost — through obsolescence or "renovation" — to artists like himself. What Bradford and Parlá share is the understanding that these "artifacts" — whether archived on paper, or on canvas, or in the gallery — represent people, places, and entire ways of life that are threatened with disappearance. So they walk the streets, making intelligent choices.


LARB Contributor


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!