Essay by Andrée Bober
Amistad América represents the height of José Parlá’s magnitude as a painter, extending an impressive oeuvre of drawings, murals, canvases, photographs, prints, and sculptures created by the artist over more than three decades. Presented in the heart of a thriving academic environment, the mural instills a sense of wonder with its sheer scale and force. Its physical presence allures thousands of visitors each day and intrigues us with metaphoric complexity.
As one enters the Zlotnik Ballroom from the underground passage to Robert B. Rowling Hall, the painting rests on the horizon in a swirl of aqua, umber, and salmon hues. Its position resembles that of a cinematic screen made luminous by the contrasting surrounds. Vibrating patterns fill the frame of the corridor and draw us forward, growing larger as their textures come into focus. Parlá’s staging unfolds dramatically once we cross the threshold onto the landing; as our eyes follow the painting to its farthest corners, we realize that our initial view was a mere sliver of the whole.
Inside the ballroom entry, Amistad América envelops us in four thousand square feet of painting. From the mezzanine we can see viscous surfaces that were shaped by the pressing of Parlá’s hand. The ground level below offers a contrasting perspective in which the mural climbs to four stories and its details dissolve in the distance. At no vantage can the entire work be seen at once; our gaze switches between the intimate and the grand. Perhaps our eyes rest upon a collaged fragment lifted from city walls, or upon trails of pigments conceded to the weight of gravity. Taken together all passages cohere in an overarching rhythm—a compositional feat that would daunt most painters.
Even for Parlá, the soaring scale of Amistad América is unprecedented. It emerges from a lifetime of discovery that began at a tender age. A child of Miami, with its brilliant skies and saturated hues, Parlá learned the rituals of street culture in the camaraderie of fellow writers. He developed an enduring affinity for walls both as substrate and metaphor, and he established a signature script that would evolve into sweeping masses of calligraphic arcs. Years of painting in the city conditioned him to respond reflexively to the scale of urban architecture, while the perils of clandestine work trained him to make decisive gestures with impressive velocity. Above all, Parlá’s early forays taught him the rewards of taking risks and the satisfactions of asserting his mark in the landscape.
As his artistic practice matured, Parlá shaped these formative influences into a distinctive visual style that is evident in Amistad América. The work of abstract masters such as Cy Twombly and Clyfford Still provided inspiration for his expressive improvisations. Distinguishing him from these artists are the ways in which Parlá merges more familiar painterly elements with his longstanding interest in the neglected aspects of urban existence. He embraces the grit and decay of the city by applying layering techniques that appear time-worn and weathered, working fragments of posters and other detritus into his surfaces directly. In doing so he introduces a new vocabulary that powerfully juxtaposes a formal lyricism with a raw edge—a tension that results in work that is eminently of our time.
Parlá has also defined a vast conceptual territory for himself that weaves his interests in social and political history together with his impressions of people, places, and memory. His experimentation with methods and forms has evolved into a manner of painting that is highly personalized and readily recognizable. As his stature has grown his large-scale projects and other works have found audiences throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia, ever expanding his opportunities to find connection and meaning. Between his technical agility and flair for the theatrical, Parlá was the ideal choice for this Landmarks commission.
The challenge to invent a new public art destination in Austin energized Parlá from the outset. During our initial meeting to review building drawings with Ennead Architects, he identified the colossal wall that would lead into the Zlotnik Ballroom and became enthralled with the idea of transforming it. The technical difficulties were formidable, from determining its support structures to engineering ways for him to access its most cavernous reaches. A whiplash schedule that accommodated the movements of six hundred construction workers on site each day called for brinksmanship. At each stage Parlá responded with characteristic assurance, determined to tease out solutions and realize his vision.
To prepare for the painting itself, Parlá first devised a modello in his Brooklyn studio. Working on a small-scale version of the mural enabled him to envision the encounter as a whole. Earlier large commissions, such as those for the Brooklyn Academy of Music and One World Trade Center, informed his thinking about the mechanics of making monumental works and their successful presentation. The artist then oversaw every aspect of the site in Austin, from materials and design to the complex lighting scheme. Within such a rigorously controlled structure, he was then free to direct all of his energy into painting.
Amistad América renders Austin through Parlá’s eyes, with a palette that evokes its vast skies, abundant nature, and pulsing urban core. However imposing the scale, his sweeping landscape is only partly explained by its physical presence. It situates the city within the larger geopolitics of the Americas, suggesting a continental map and routes that connect Austin to a much larger ecology. It also contains fragments of calligraphic lettering, including three key words partially obscured by thick masses of color: Austin, Guadalupe, and King. These not only locate the mural at the intersection of Austin’s Guadalupe Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but also acknowledge its symbolic position as a place of Latinx and African American history and culture.
The mural resonates too with its institutional place. The McCombs School of Business is fundamentally concerned with understanding the nature of commerce, a realm that seismically affects our environment, our culture, and our ways of being. The painting contains geographic microcosms that reveal city grids and the borders between nations, as well as the traces of industry, trade, and migration. It serves as a powerful reminder to tomorrow’s business leaders and decision makers that every choice shapes the course of our lives, the landscape we inhabit, and our shared history.