Inside the Brooklyn studio of Cuban-American artist José Parlá
Artists’ studios are always personal spaces. Hidden in plain sight in warehouse lofts or behind pull-down steel grates, they don’t reflect their residents’ personalities and practices until you get inside and see what’s on the walls.
The studio of the Cuban-American artist José Parlá is no different. A single-storey industrial building in the southerly Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn that’s surrounded by mechanics and manufacturers, the facade is completely nondescript. But once you’re in the door, everything changes.
Parlá, who bought the building in 2014, works in the center of the space, a wide sky-lit arena hung with the artist’s vibrant, gestural paintings in progress, which recall urban walls as much as art historical reference points like Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha. The paintings have been shown in galleries and museums from New York to Tokyo; a mural of Parlá’s can now be seen in the new One World Trade Center.
‘I don’t live here, but I pretty much feel like I do,’ the artist says (his apartment is in nearby Fort Greene). In his paint-spattered black jacket and jeans, Parlá looks as comfortable as he would holding court at home.
The studio’s design was the result of a collaboration with Snøhetta, the buzzed-about Norwegian architecture firm responsible for such structures as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s recent iceberg-like expansion, and the Oslo Opera House, which won the 2009 Mies van der Rohe award.
Parlá met the firm’s co-founder, Craig Dykers, at a Pecha Kucha slide-presentation event in 2010. The two appreciated each other’s talks and Dykers invited the artist to his office to see if they might collaborate. The first result of the partnership was a piece installed at North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library. The intention is to team up for spaces like a public library in Queens and the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. But Parlá’s studio is the biggest collaboration so far.
Today, the artist shows in estimable galleries like those of Mary Boone and Bryce Wolkowitz—the latter being the New York gallerist who walks into the studio during my visit to check on work for upcoming art fairs. Exhibitions are coming up in Italy and London, as well as a project at the University of Texas, Austin. Parlá is entrenched in the art world, reinforcing a now well-established path from graffiti to museums, just as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and KAWS have before him.
Yet Parlá is still focused on reaching a wider audience, particularly through his murals and other “public art”. ‘You’re having a connection with the public that’s different, than with someone who’s searching for art,’ he says. ‘They might discover that they really love art.’ One can easily imagine the next generation of painters arriving in New York inspired by Parlá’s work, just as the city once drew him in.
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Text: Kyle Chayka
Photography: Mark Mahaney
Styling: Yety Akinola