From Bright Lights Film Journal Online:
Abstract Film Palimpsests
On the Work of Rey Parla

pa·limp·sest: n., Writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased; something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface (Webster's)

By Michael Betancourt

Each of the three abstract films hand-painted by Rey Parla take their form from (and owe much of their meaning to) their origins in the form and procedures of aerosol art, where each new writer adds and overlays their imagery and marks onto surfaces that have a history of past marks already there, giving both "graffiti" and his hand-painted films a clear basis in the palimpsest. These films are a document of the process of their own creation. While three films are available for viewing, he produced more than the three films that exist; his earliest films were short loops of marks and layering added to super-8 documentary footage of "graffiti writers" at work in Miami, Florida. These first hand-painted film loops did not survive precisely because each was a collection of experiments. Parla was testing his approach to creating abstract film imagery analogous to aerosol graffiti art. These loops would coalesce into his first finished film, Sporadic Germination — some of his experimental loops are included in his first completed film. Parla's concerns with history and aerosol art as both the subject and the product of his films separates his work from that of other artists making hand-painted abstract films. History and its relationship to Parla, the working film artist, is a recurring issue of his films.

Sporadic Germination announces itself as a graffiti film at the beginning of the film. The title itself appears letter-by-letter as spray painted letters in the immediately recognizable cursive alphabet of graffiti. Much of the film includes faded images of actual Miami graffiti paintings; also known as "pieces," at unidentified and abandoned construction sites already overlaid, obscured, and re-written by the physical marks left by past writers. This visual content is often itself heavily obscured by Parla's own painting: 

While editing [a documentary on graffiti writing in Miami called] "An Experimental Segmented Reality," my brother [Jose Parla, the subject of the film] sat next to me to draw in his black book and wait to see what the projector would spit out. He had with him a bag full of designer markers, tools and paint. Using some left over footage, I recalled from a reading that Georges Méliès has used a colorization method to bleach an entire film with a sepia like look. My experiments with color on photographed film began on this work and later experiments developed out of discarded footage which ended up being a part of Sporadic Germination. 1

These photographic images are deeply embedded in the graphic patterns of scratches and paint marks that fill the frame and cover both sides of the film itself. When projected, the difference in depth of field gives the film's imagery a tangible depth and visual presence where some marks are crisply in focus while others are softened by their location on the reverse side of the film strip. The sheer number and complexity of marks and scratches is impressive given the small gauge of the actual celluloid.

The gradual emergence of this first finished film from the accumulation of both marks and scratches on the film and the accretion of successful loops combined with new footage prepared specifically for it is reflected in its title, Sporadic Germination. This film results from Parla's discovery that he could paint the film and work the resulting material in a way analogous to his brother Jose's (right) work on wood that partly adapts their earlier "aerosol writing" work with mixed media into a museum/gallery format. Parla's discovery of direct animation came from his desire to create a film analog to the direct work done by his brother working with acrylic and spray-paint. His discovery was a ‘naive' one, done without an awareness of the films made by other artists such as Stan Brakhage or Len Lye. 

Parla's second film The Revolution of Super 8 Universe: a self-portrait, also produced on super-8, employed a more complex, self-aware and historically conscious approach to his process. The leftover documentary footage of his first film is replaced by a still photograph of Rey Parla himself. His approach to the photographic footage in both films places the camera's image at the center of the aesthetic:

Technically I was interested in creating layers on celluloid by producing a history of mixed media with paint, spit, scratching, lines; rubbing strips together, using water and cloth and my finger nails to scratch out part of existing images so that the picture would blend seamlessly into what I was painting. It was through the juxtaposition of photography and abstraction that I began thinking about the deeper psychological layers in me and how I could dig further into the image; deeper into the frame. [...] I began to paint on super 8mm film by using the emulsion as part of my initial design. Scratching off the emulsion wasn't the goal; cropping the image was, so that I could later on create a kind of seamless frame around the image with paint and scratching. 2

The contents of the photographs in the first two films are thus essential to the form and meaning of these films. The shift in photographic content between his first and second films, from documenting his brother's "aerosol pieces" at abandoned sites around Miami, to a self-portrait, reflects a shift in concern from finding a visual analog to Jose's painting to refining and identifying his own work and place in relation to the history of hand-painted films. The "revolution" of the second film is in part a discovery that his hand-painting belongs to a history and is part of an established art.

Sporadic Germination (right) premiered at the Miami International Film Festival in 1994. The other films he saw there were his first exposure to avant-garde film. 3 This encounter crystallized his approach in several regards. He produced a second film, The Revolution of Super 8 Universe: a self-portrait, and began work on a longer project in 35mm originally titled The Spectacle, but that he would release as Rumba Abstracta. The self-portrait, like the earlier Sporadic Germination, is produced on super-8 working over top of photographs. Where the images in his first film function as links between the hand-painting and manipulation of the film strip itself and the historical layering and build-up of imagery and marks on abandoned, derelict buildings in the urban environment of Miami, the embedded self-portrait (still) photograph in The Revolution of Super 8 Universe: a self-portrait is closer to the "poemagogic" use of photography identified by critic P. Adams Sitney in his discussion of Stan Brakhage's Dante Quartet. These images serve to signify psychological aspects of their creator:

In [Brakhage's] The Dante Quartet brief glimpses of an erupting volcano and craters of the moon, seen amid or under the swirls of paint, could be seen as what [Anton] Ehrenzweig [a psychologist who studied creativity] called "poemagogic images": "I have coined the term "poemagogic" to describe [the] special function of inducing and describing the ego's creativity. . . . Poemagogic images, in their enormous variety, reflect the various phases of creativity in a very direct manner, through the central theme of death and rebirth, of trapping and liberations, seems to overshadow the others.". . . In his later hand-painted films, the "poemagogic" images, allegorical of the psychodynamics of creativity, tend to disappear. 4

A similar progression from photography to direct work on clear leader is visible in Parla's work, and his use of photography can be understood in similar terms. Sitney's proposal that the photographic images painted over by Brakhage should be understood in relation to the psychology of creativity, with the over-painting, scratching, and other reworking of the image standing-in as symbols for the death and rebirth Ehrenzweig believes is allegorized in all creative processes. This relationship also describes the Parla films. The images are destroyed as they are forced to become something new that incorporates the hand-made gesture. The embedding of "poemagogic" photography in Sporadic Germination and The Revolution of Super 8 Universe: a self-portrait anchor the abstractions in concrete realism, however attenuated. The photography links the abstractions to his life in direct, obvious ways: pictures of his brother's paintings; a self-portrait.

The literal destruction and transformation of his images, the palimpsest aspect of these films, is also a dramatization of Freud's allegory of the subconscious mind in the "mystic writing-pad":

If we lift the entire covering sheet — both the celluloid and the waxed paper — off the wax slab, the writing vanishes and, as I have already remarked, does not reappear again. The surface of the Mystic Pad is clear of writing and once more capable of receiving impressions. But it is easy to discover that the permanent trace of what was written is retained upon the wax slab itself [...] If we image one hand writing upon the surface of the Mystic Writing-Pad while another periodically raises its covering-sheet from the slab, we shall have a concrete representation of the way I tried to picture the functioning of the perceptual apparatus of our mind. 5

Freud's description finds a literal correlate in Parla's procedure of scratching, repainting, and distressing his film strips so they accumulate marks, colors, and other traces of his process. The magic writing-pad's accumulation of marks that never vanish, instead reappearing and interacting with all the new reworkings of the surface, is identical to Parla's description of the film as a collection of "layers." This hand-painting literally becomes a personal expression of self in his second film, making it into a "mystic writing-pad" where the marks can be seen as a reflection of his mind and mental state. His connection between abstraction and internal mental states in The Revolution of Super 8 Universe: a self-portrait, rather than as a transfer of the graffiti procedure into film as in Sporadic Germination, is a direct result of his encounter with the broader traditions and forms of abstract film and abstraction in general.

The link between internal perceptions and abstraction, especially abstract film, is an integral part of the history of this art.6 The shift in emphasis from external reality to internal personal history does not alter these films' construction as palimpsests. Neither is this changed referent from external to internal as dramatic as it might appear: Sporadic Germination has a dual set of referents, both the visible appearance of "aerosol pieces" occasionally visible in the background under the network of painting and scratching, as well as the unseen aspects of a personal history in and around the aerosol art movement in Miami. Embedded in both films is a personal history that connects Parla in unseen ways to his material.

Rumba Abstracta (right), Parla's third abstract film, follows this same line of development. Unlike the previous films, it was produced without a photographic "substrate," instead being done directly on strips of 35mm clear leader; nearly all of the strips used were 24, 54, or 56 frames long. Originally this third film was meant to be a feature length abstract film titled The Spectacle, after Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, but when Alicia Parla (his aunt) died suddenly, he changed the title. The personal dimension is crucial in his process since it both structures the individual images and provides the contents for the films, informing their meaning beyond the networks of scratches and marks. This is the "history" that is crucial to their form as palimpsests.

The personal dimensions of these scratch films are grounded, like the graffiti procedures that form the basis of Parla's approach to paint-on-film, in the lived experiences of his personal biography. The palimpsest these films present is fundamentally a reflection of these biographical dimensions: the creation and maintenance of links between self and family presented in the form of films. At the same time, Parla's working process is automatic — a stream of consciousness7 — making the layers understandable as records of his reactions and responses to the photographic imagery and previous marks. The progression from documentary footage of his brother working, to a self-portrait that was a "revolution" since it represents a break with his past work as a documentarian, then to a film without underlying photography where any imagery and form must rely entirely upon feedback between the present work and past work demonstrates his movement into self-sufficiency. The psychological maturation process Ehrenzweig describes in the "poemagogic image" as essential to creativity becomes visible in the progression of these abstract films. Parla's palimpsest is himself — in the form of his lived experiences — and through the psychological processes dramatized literally in the gesture, scratch, and painting he puts into his hand-painted films.

1. Parla, Rey. Reflections on Personal Filmmaking, unpublished article, 8.
2. Ibid, 8-9.
3. Ibid, 10.

4. Sitney, P. Adams. "Tales of the Tribes" in Chicago Review, 47:4, 48:1, winter 2001/spring 2002, pp. 112-113; quoting Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 176-177.
5. Freud, Sigmund. "The Mystic Writing-Pad" in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIX, translated by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), 230-232.
6. Dann, Kevin T. Bright Colors Falsely Seen (New Haven: Yale, 1998).
7. Parla, Ibid., pp. 1-2. 

The Brothers Parlá

Walter Benjamin’s conception of historical testimony converges with the practice of“creating the history” in the work of two brothers, both artists: Jose and Rey Parlá. Theaccumulation of marks, scratches, drips, scrapes and other smears on the surface of the work, aswell as the self-conscious palimpsesting of the surface that creates both the image and is arecord of its own physical development—including the ‘accident’ or erasure of what liesunderneath. Coupled with the illegibility of the writing in these works, what the viewer encounters is a visual experience where hand writing returns to its original source, the gesture, undoing its habitual relationship as representational, encoded language and the knowledge that form typically provides.

Testimony is, as Benjamin notes, dependent on the work having experienced the effectsof time and displaying these for its audience: a unique existence suffering from changes createdby its travel through the world. These effects create their work—in composing a piece, each actcreates the possibility for further acts, and together they produce the final theatricalperformance-composition. A finished work by either brother is testimony to its own making.

The layering concept is their crucial reference point, a procedural overlap that enablestheir work to be coherently related, yet proceed in entirely different directions. There is no possibility of confusing the work of one brother for the other: separated by more than just media,(Jose, the painter; Rey, the film maker), these visual productions arrive at differences of signification. The broad development of their works move in opposite directions: in Jose’spaintings, the work intersubjectively explores cityscapes as performance spaces where identity,culture and politics accumulate in the human environment—a turning outwards from the self togaze onto the environment; in contrast, Rey’s work, part of the American avant-garde tradition,turns inwards, projecting the invisible struggles of the artist into the layering of surfaces, atransformation of personal concerns and struggles into a publically visible form. These pairedtendencies do not preclude Jose’s inclusion of his personal concerns in his paintings, or Rey’sengagement with the larger social spaces around him—what appears throughout these worksis always shaped by an underlying stance. It is the prevailing orientation internal/external giving shape to their finished pieces.

In building these layers, the testimony that emerges from their constructions fostersimmediate kinds of engagement for their audience, tempered by the distinction between workseen instantly and that which requires time to fully engage it, a dilemma both have engaged within entirely different ways. The immediately graspable single image, vs. the work that can only be seen in sections: for Rey, this pairing developed through the characteristic effects of the film medium itself, as both the film loop, the linear unspooling film, and later, as the still or “scratch-graph.” It is a progression from duration into immediacy; Jose’s work has progressedin the opposite direction, from the single, still painting, to the monumental, environmental workwhere only small pieces can be encountered at any moment, forcing a duration onto the finalpiece, one that can only be seen over a length of time. Progressions such as these link their work to both the spaces of its exhibition-production and to the media employed in its production.

However, the engagement with questions of duration remains a feature of both brother’s working processes—the dynamic of painting, drying time, layering and accumulation all introduce delays into their work, drawing fabrication out so that even the most seemingly simple piece is actually the result of an extended period spent waiting, a necessary reflection of historical testimony itself.

by Michael Betancourt © 2012

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