The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, July 2, 2022

What José Parlá, JR and Kunle Martins learned from graffiti
José Parlá: It’s Yours, 2020 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Photo: Rey Parlá.

by Jon Caramanica

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It’s been refreshing to see the recent bursts of full-car subway graffiti in New York, a kaleidoscopic jolt of anarchy that recalls the city before glass towers, before subway countdown clocks, before the street-art gallery at Hudson Yards. The huffing and puffing that greeted these trains also served as a reminder that graffiti is both a disruptive aesthetic choice and a disruptive social practice — where it happens is just as crucial as what it looks like.

That’s especially important to remember given that five decades or so after the first taggers raided New York, graffiti — or at minimum, its spirit — is finding its way into museums. The often electric “José Parlá: It’s Yours,” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the overly blunt “JR: Chronicles,” at the Brooklyn Museum, demonstrate the vastly differing shapes that infiltration can take — intricate vs. plain, abstract vs. literal, textured vs. trite.

For Parlá, a former tagger, graffiti remains his fount. His show begins in the lobby, with “It’s Yours: The International Illegal Construct Against Indigenous People,” an oversized piece consisting of layered canvases that cover most of the outer wall leading to the main exhibition and slither around the sides and into the room itself. It gives the impression of being wrapped onto the museum, or more aptly, peeling off it.

Parlá ennobles decay — his abstract expressionist works resemble pieces that have been applied over other pieces, and so on, on and on for decades, then left out in the elements for decades more. Vibrant colors jockey against dull ones; splatters of rocky texture channel happenstance; paint is applied in drips and arcs and douses and schmears. In places, parts of the work are shedding, or torn.

The most contained and successful of these pieces is his “Writers Bench 149th Street and Grand Concourse.” (The title is a tribute to a famed 1970s graffiti hangout not far from the museum.) Colors range from hazmat orange to bruised eggplant, and the interruptions between torn paper and splattered paint feel especially dramatic. At the center are two huge bluish gashes that from a distance suggest eyes, or wounds.

Nearby, “No Color Supersedes ’Cause The Balance is Right,” at 20 feet long, is a full narrative in action, coalescing toward tension in the middle — Parlá’s wispy tag-descendant linework is elegant, and his chipping and dripping paint is a stark contrast to the peeled segments. “Agree For Your Mind To Be Free,” heaving with chalky yellow, captures the jaundiced earth tones of a collapsed city.

The smaller framed works here are, as a rule, less powerful than the larger ones. And in general, Parlá’s free-standing totem walls, done in a similar style but in a way that looks as if they’ve been chiseled off an abandoned building, are more moving than the canvases he’s showing here. His many small details get activated when the context is huge.

Parlá is loose with his fields of color, but never splenetic. There are also signs of written life throughout — scrawls about cuts in government services, the Fania Records logo and, on “It’s Yours,” Parlá adds tags from older graffiti writers, including Coco 144 and Chino BYI, a gesture that bonds the painting not just to the museum, but to the streets outside.

When Parlá was a young graffiti writer, his tag was Ease — some of his old books and tools are displayed here in vitrines. Even though he’s long been deliteralizing his work, it still captures the structural recklessness of the best graffiti. The impatience of the paintwork juxtaposed against the permanence conveyed by the representation of decay is a backdoor way to capture the graffiti impulse and make sure it’s never erased. (For the last few months, the museum’s other main exhibition space has held a bounty of Henry Chalfant’s ’70s and ’80s subway graffiti photographs, the original way to capture graffiti permanently.)

Early in JR’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, there is a set of photos and videos of his early years as a graffiti writer, a means of establishing his bona fides. But that quickly recedes when the show arrives at the meat of his work, which has learned one crucial thing from graffiti — but maybe just one — the impulse to be seen and to interject new narratives into environs that aren’t naturally receptive.

JR is a photographer, activist and social engineer who made his name in the mid- 2000s by photographing residents of Les Bosquets, a housing project in a Paris banlieue, up close and with a sense of whimsy, then wheat-pasting those images around the city, a subversive sort of quasi-advertising. This has become JR’s primary mode — capturing the overlooked and forcing people to gaze upon them. It is, without doubt, noble. In JR’s projects, which take place around the world, he is both interloper and collaborator; a recurring refrain in this show is the question of what the communities he collaborates with will gain. In a video documenting the artist’s work in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya — part of his Women Are Heroes series — one resident plainly describes the appeal: “It is like marketing,” he says.

But the most impressive part of JR’s practice is, in truth, the logistics. The photography itself is adequate, and not always revealing. As his works get grander in size, they do not get grander in idea — spreading one large image across several buildings or passenger trains or shipping containers or leotards on the bodies of dancers feels like an optical trick. In one work, he erects a huge billboard of a Mexican toddler at the U.S. border, peeking over the wall into this country — it’s cute, which is the point.

Over the course of this exhibition, JR comes to seem like an NGO Christo and Jeanne-Claude, organizing hundreds of people and months of effort in the hope of pulling off an epic stunt which, when photographed, will travel far and make noise. Generously, his approach recalls Tibor Kalman’s work on Benetton’s Colors magazine. More truthfully, though, it recalls the work of branding agencies. His visual language is crisp, unambiguous, hard to misinterpret, if it requires interpretation at all.

Since JR’s art is often wheat-pasted, and therefore ephemeral, what is displayed here is documentation of its creation. One of the more powerful images is from his 2013 return to Les Bosquets, where he wheat-pasted images inside a housing tower due to be demolished the following day. In the photo, that building, half collapsed, has JR’s loopy pictures band-aiding the wound, a tragicomedy.

There are some echoes here with Parlá — both respect decay, and want to counter it. But to Parlá, decay is messy and vital. To JR, it’s whimsical and inconvenient. Parlá and JR are friends and collaborators, too. In JR’s show, there is a video of them working together on a commission in Havana — JR is the appeaser, and Parlá, in service of their art, is an agitator.

In JR’s early work, at least, the mere act of documentation was a radical and consequential gesture. But his more recent work shifts from individual photos into grand murals incorporating hundreds of people. The show’s centerpiece is “The Chronicles of New York City,” a gigantic four-wall scene containing more than 1,000 New Yorkers — there are tablets where you can zoom in on each one and hear them speak. It’s cheerful and utterly limp — Jason Polan would have conveyed more about these people with just a few pencil strokes. Looking at the work for a minute is just as revealing as looking at it for an hour.

Which isn’t to say that simply documenting a community can’t radiate emotional immediacy. Graffiti legend Kunle Martins — Earsnot of the IRAK crew — was a fixture on New York walls in the late 1990s and 2000s. His fine-art work, as seen over the past year, is sentimental and studious. At 56 Henry, he’s showing several diptychs, graphite renderings of loved ones on dirty found cardboard.

The results are eerie and surprisingly crisp, like frottage. Some of the characters are familiar — “Dill / Waters” is skater Jason Dill and filmmaker John Waters. But the most uncanny, “Barry” and “Mark,” are the ones that display the same person at two different phases of life. Everything ages, and everything fades — bravado and atrophy are forever intertwined. Just like great graffiti, Martins’ work is both a scream and a ghost.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

Today's News

March 9, 2020

Sheldon Museum of Art presents Person of Interest

From coughing fits to closings, cultural world girds for coronavirus

Cao Fei and Formafantasma exhibitions now open at Serpentine Galleries

Rome's Raphael show falls victim to coronavirus

The Sydney Opera House goes quiet. Finally.

Exhibition at Staley-Wise Gallery celebrates the work of Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Stephanie Pfriender Stylander

Exhibition presents an exquisite selection of drawings of important buildings in St Petersburg

Voice of the unknown woman: Afghan filmmaker Roya Sadat

Petzel Gallery opens a solo exhibition of new works by Hiroki Tsukuda

David Zwirner

Carpenters Workshop Gallery opens a thematic solo exhibition of works by Joep Van Lieshout

mumok opens an exhibition of works by Steve Reinke

Feminist, fashionable and fighting for sustainability: India's Anita Dongre

Steve Weber, guitarist in oddball folk band, dies at 76

Art Gallery of NSW redresses history with announcement of new facade commission for its iconic entrance

Exhibition of paintings and sculptures by Rudolf Polanszky opens at Gagosian

After inquiry, Domingo withdraws from London performances

303 Gallery opens an exhibition of works by Gina Fischli

When classical composers did the fox trot

Rare fully functional Apple-1 computer among items in Steve Jobs auction

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego to host art auction 2020 on May 2

Exhibition features contemporary Aboriginal artists, includes more than 100 works

What José Parlá, JR and Kunle Martins learned from graffiti

An astute choreographer stumbles (and rises) to hope

SFER IK Museion in Tulum wins LCD Berlin Award for New Culture Destination of the Year - Latin America

Innovative Upgrades to Make Your Workplace Better and More Efficient

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez

Royalville Communications, Inc
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful