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Surface TensionsPETE L’OFFICIAL
on José Parlá (now showing at OHWOW Gallery in Los Angeles)
and Mark Bradford, two archivists of urban ruins.
José Parlá: Walls, Diaries, and Paintings
Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011. 188 pp.
Christopher Bedford and Hamza Walker
Yale University Press, in assoc. with the Wexner Center for the Arts, June 2010. 256 pp.
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.
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.
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.
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) 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.
Today my student group, Black at SAIC, hosted a convo with Hamza Walker on Post-Black art. The discussion definitely helped define the term for us more. It made me wonder if there are many artists that do label themselves as “post-black,” though. Whether or not they identify with labels, many artists struggle to create work about identity without resorting to a “bag of tricks” from the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, Black Romantic Art, etc. Post-Black as a concept presents an alternative engagement with race away from exhausted themes/aesthetics, but I don’t find much use for the term itself. It’s confusing - seeming to suggest a color blindness that can be heavy-handed. I like being black too much to use words that might imply race doesn’t exist!