Flux and mutability

A poetic constellation evoking various motifs correlational to the function of the environment
-Iain Sinclair

The work of Brooklyn based artist José Parlá does not easily sit within normal constraints, he has been described using the monikers of street artist, painter, urban narrator or even the traditional simple hip hop label of writer. His paintings evoke the torn and sodden textures of the gritty urban landscape, entwining spidery tags within their crumbling spectral confines. Witnessing his offerings at first hand several years ago at the excellent Elms Lesters painting rooms I was in awe of the sheer ferocity of the blistered and heavily lettered canvases. It struck me that graffiti or street art is an organic manifestation of the city’s biological growth. The fecund landscape erupts in vibrant chemical joy, pigment and palettes unfold like distressed origami postcards of a Venusian sidewalk. Fellow artist and curator Dave Kinsey says ‘Parla’s vivacious brushwork and subtly shifting palettes build and excavate walls, tags, skies and sidewalks as seen through the veils of time and memory’. For Kinsey, the paintings are physical extensions of the civil fabric, the artist peels off the grimy strata to reveal an archaeological map of events at a particular locale.

© José Parlá

New York based artist Futura (2000), famous for his Unkle album covers, bizarre collectable toys and abstract airbrushed canvases also celebrates the municipal complexity in many diverse mediums. Futura says that he ‘look[s] for the graphic subterfuge in the background which in fact may be more telling, these subtle nowheres I call home’. For Futura the technicolour work inhabits the hinterlands of the dense cityscape, art encases and signals the presence of abandoned liminal spaces which welcome the lost and curious wanderers off-the-beaten-track and into the velvet underworld. These spaces slowly creep outwards, shrouded in a barrage of illegible signatures, vinyl stickers and stark manipulated industrial geometries.

Kasimir Malevich’s Russian Suprematist movement established an early 20th century drive to embrace prime geometric shapes as a pure foundation of art and architecture. The Suprematists made a more formal effort to imbue the metropolis with installations and build anew utilising sculpture and art. The group sought to inject these mathematical forms into these cultural structures, art thus shaped both the inhabitation and understanding of the surrounding material world. Fontana-Giusti observed that ‘the Suprematist canvas could therefore be understood as the space of the mind and knowledge, including the immanent’. Malevich endeavoured to construct experiential space with artistic polygons cast as the raw basis for civil opportunities, a grand formal gesture thus preceding the wild multiplicity of today’s rampant graffiti tendrils.

Graffiti can perhaps be thought of as a triumphant symbiotic entity, a bewilderingly dense coral reef and its multitude of interdependent inhabitants, the vibrant corals a signifier of a complex system, the art work like an algae or fungus occupying an interstitial topology and flourishing in the niches and crevices. Street artist Ciro gazing upon the huge rainbow murals of the Brazilian favelas observed that ‘graffiti is both a manifestation of social issues and an artistic reaction to them’. Its presence alerts one to the liquid and occasionally perilous borders which occur in these zones, but is also testament to the incredibly creative energy which resides here too.

Writer Iain Sinclair, ever appropriate in any debate on the intertwined bricolage flux of the city comments on his perambulations that ‘graffiti is the only constant on these fantastic journeys; random codices, part sign part language‘. Sinclair documents these dark vistas in his book Lights Out For the Territory, a travelogue of the forgotten alleyways of London’s sprawl. He divines occult parallel mythologies from the wasteland debris, for Sinclair the growth of street art underpins and enshrines an alternative historical narrative, both human in scale and mutable in spirit. The encrusted walls which carry and relay the bright ghosts of memory, fiction and fact, thicken like calcium deposits upon our infrastructure. Tristan Manco writes that ‘it exists for a brief moment in time, before being lost forever in the city layers’. Ultimately the columns, billboards, gates, walls, bridges and roofs morph and swell, the flux and mutability of urban graffiti coexists in animated symbiosis with the concrete of the liminal city. Parlá’s work triumphantly champions this vivid interplay.


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