Last night a few hundred people, including street artist KAWS and actress Heather Graham, filled the Dean Street entrance to the Barclays Center, Brooklyn’s new arena and concert venue, for the unveiling of its latest contemporary art commission: A 70-foot-long painting by Miami-born, Brooklyn-based artist José Parlá titled “Diary of Brooklyn.”
Enormous as the Parlá piece is — it spans nearly the entire width of the arena entrance — it’s barely half as wide as the other Barclays permanent painting commission completed to date, a Mickalene Thomas triptych mural (see below) on an upper floor that stretches a whopping 121 feet. Both works, however, use different strategies to connect the gleaming, glowing new arena — whose planning and construction processes were contentious, to put it very, very mildly — to the surrounding community.
Thomas’s untitled enamel and vinyl work references the august architecture of Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Museum — where her solo exhibition closes later this month — and Brooklyn’s brownstone townhouses. It articulates a vision of the borough as a great American city whose built character and civic landmarks are on an equal footing with those of its smaller but better known neighbor, Manhattan.
Parlá, meanwhile, tells a different story. His acrylic, ink, oil, enamel, and plaster on wood composition, inspired by the James Agee essay “Brooklyn Is,” features overlapping and impenetrable script scrawling on a backdrop of blue and white drips and splotches that evokes nothing more than the tagged and torn surfaces of construction site fences and abandoned buildings. In fact, a wall directly across Dean Street that has long been popular with street artists — currently two wheatpaste pieces by Swoon can be seen there — bears a strong resemblance to Parlá’s work, as if it were the gritty documentary to his based-on-a-true-story prestige pic.
His work is plenty gritty though, both figuratively and in actuality, its ornate and elegant swirling paint and ink marks contrasting sharply with the very tactile and splattered plaster drips spanning the entire piece. During last night’s unveiling Parlá explained that his goal was to capture “what it means to be urban,” because “Brooklyn embodies that.”
While Thomas’s work offers a vision of Brooklyn as a city of elegant and majestic buildings, Parlá’s piece locates character in the details scribbled in the overlooked gaps between city planners’ visions and real estate developers’ money-making schemes. That both works should be housed in a building many Brooklynites find inherently antithetical — if not downright dangerous — to both those characteristics of the borough only makes the commissions more compelling.
To see a somewhat fuller version of “Diary of Brooklyn,” click the image below:
— Benjamin Sutton
(Photos by the author.)