The transposition of graffiti art from the urban jungle to the gallery wall is often a lazy, uninspired one, redolent of both slapdash GCSE projects and local authority youth outreach schemes, so I came to Cuban artist Jose Parla’s debut UK show with some trepidation. When I discovered that his following includes Eric Clapton, Tom Ford, and the international doyen of cheap, mass-produced, consumerist ‘art’ himself, Takashi Murakami, my fears were only increased. Art that attracts celebrities, particularly when those celebrities are as dull as Clapton, as vapid as Ford or as heavily associated with the very worst aspects of contemporary art as Murakami, should set anybody’s critical alarm bells ringing. When he says things as pretentious as ‘we believe ourselves to be on the cusp of evolution but perhaps we are only experiencing an involution’ or as downright obvious as ‘the marks on the walls of our cities are perhaps a testimonial, like scars of a wounded civilization’ it gets difficult to approach a show like this with anything other than abject dread.
Yet approach it I did, and was glad I had at least attempted to do so with a fairly open mind, because Parla’s art, when left to speak for itself, free of celebrity endorsements and his own navel-gazing balderdash, is really rather special. Parla spent his formative years in Miami and Puerto Rico, trained as an artist in Savannah, Georgia, and began his graffiti career in 1985 in New York, where he still lives and works. There really does seem to be a sense in which the characters of all the places Parla has lived his life are tangibly present in the pieces he presents in Adaptation/Translation. Grey and beige backdrops play the role of weeping New York concrete, and underpin every scene without overpowering any one. They are necessary for the life of the works, but do not seek to dominate. Transcending the near-monochrome of the backgrounds, sometimes merely puncturing it, often obscuring it almost entirely, is a riot of colour that seems to evoke New York graffiti less than it does the vibrancy of Florida and the Caribbean, where Parla spent his youth.
Parla’s art’s real strength lies in a feeling, pervasive throughout, that what the viewer is looking at is somehow deliberately divorced from any specific truth; everything in this exhibition is suffused with a certain unreality that is simultaneously unsettling in its falseness, and comforting in the anonymity it offers. This is so because Parla’s works only superficially appear to be real pieces of graffiti. Those New York concrete backgrounds are in fact nothing of the sort, they are mere impressions of the real thing, made on wood and board. These aren’t graffiti-covered walls, they are, defiantly and self-consciously, images of graffiti-covered walls. Whilst real graffiti is about singular displays of identity, expressed through tagging, the ‘writing’ on Parla’s pictures forms only contorted, unreadable calligraphic messes, only ever suggesting real words or statements, and often obscuring legible writing beneath. Yet this continual emphasis on an absence of reality never makes for an absence of truth; the lack of language in Parla’s works only universalises them; they could have been inspired by graffiti on any wall in any city. The pieces that make up Adaptation/Translation transcend any single spoken language; like Rothko and Pollock before him, both of whom he evokes, Jose Parla’s works establish their own visual code of communication, with which they speak both to the viewer and, most powerfully, to each other.