Friday, June 24, 2011

Spanish Artists Doing Time at Holmesburg Prison

Dear friends:

Philagrafika is embarking in a new project, working towards the next incarnation of the festival tentatively scheduled for 2014. The project is titled Doing Time, and consists of a site-specific work of Spanish artists Patricia Gómez and María Jesús González that will come out of a six-week residency in Philadelphia. The results will be shown at Moore College of Art & Design, our longtime partner.

Patricia and María Jesús, who live in Valencia, Spain, have taken a technique called strappo, commonly used by restorers to salvage murals from walls that are deteriorating or from buildings that are to be demolished, and applied it towards artistic goals. Strappo is a complex process, but it could be described as adhering a thin fabric on the surface of a wall with water-soluble glue, waiting for it to dry, and then peeling off the fabric, which takes with it the outer surface of the wall in question (and whatever images are on it). Once on the fabric, the paint can be seen right-side up because of the transparency of the type of voile used, or from behind if attached to an opaque fabric. If needed, the paint can be attached again to another wall or canvas with glue that does not dissolve in water, and then the original fabric can be moistened, peeled away, and the glue dissolved until the painting is visible again.

The artists, who studied printmaking in the context of a conservation school in Italy, consider their work a monoprint, which it technically is, because the matrix (in this case the wall) is transferring its ink (the paint) onto a surface (the voile), and it produces a single copy. They came upon this technique when priming a canvas that they had to staple to the studio wall because they did not have a stretcher. When the primer dried and they wanted to transfer the canvas to another space, they discovered that the back had taken with it the surface of the wall, and they thought that the colored shape of the decaying wall was a beautiful image in its own right.

Soon after, they decided to try the technique in more complex projects. Learning that the El Cabañal neighborhood in Valencia was slated for demolition, they brought bolts of fabric and painstakingly took the imprints of twelve of the beautiful Modernist houses shortly before they were destroyed. The resulting print, a roll 340 m long by 2 m high (about 1116 by 7 feet!), is at the same time a print and an archive, the sole remainder of the houses that disappeared, merging space and time in a potent image that encompasses memory, history and place.

Homes in the El Cabañal neighborhood in Valencia

The possibilities of the technique as a tool for capturing time became apparent then, as the walls in architecture contain not only a defined space but bear the evidence of the passing of time in the form of marks, layers of paint and patina. We all know that when a house is "lived in" means that it has that unequivocal ambience of warmth that new or renovated spaces don't, and there is truth to the common adage "If walls could talk" in the sense of being the silent witnesses of what happens over time, which is physically and metaphorically imprinted in them. Patricia and Maria Jesús sought to capture this time imbued in interior architecture, and chose as an example one of the places where the passing of time is more palpable: the walls of a prison.

Strappo print from the Cárcel Modelo in Valencia

The Cárcel Modelo (Model prison) in Valencia had been abandoned for 15 years when the artists decided to do their intervention. The space had the kind of decay which befalls abandoned structures that nonetheless have a sturdy construction -not structural, but superficial, product of being left alone to gather dust. Gómez and González peeled away the entire walls of several of the cells, and showed the results on the central space of the prison, unfolding, as it were, the space and in so doing confronting the viewer with the actual size of the space where a human being spend years, decades at a time in solitary confinement.

Moss covered prison cell, Holmesburg Prison, Northeast Philadelphia

Holmesburg prison, in Northeast Philadelphia, opened in 1896 and functioned for just a little more than a century. Built according to radial configuration inspired on Bentham's principle of the Panopticum (where a central eye would be able to control everything around it), it has a central control tower from which depart long corridors lined with cells on both sides. The cells themselves are narrow and tall, and have skylights that let light and ventilation in. Unfortunately, being on the ground, these cells are very humid, and on the course of the fifteen years since the prison was decommissioned, the paint on the walls and even the plaster on some of them have peeled off or fallen down.

In 2000 photographer Thomas Roma produced a beautiful book, In Prison Air, which documented the derelict state of the prison (it is startling to see how the walls and markings he documented have since degraded further, some to the point of no recognition). Holmesburg has also been the location for at least three movies, Up Close & Personal (1996), Animal Factory (2000), and Law-Abiding Citizen (2009).

Prison cell, Holmesburg Prison, Northeast Philadelphia

Gomez and González' project involves salvaging the outer surfaces of some of the cells at Holmesburg. They are also looking at interesting grafitti and other types of markings on the walls. As is customary in their practice, they will let the encounter with the site direct the path their project will take. Philagrafika will be reporting on the advancement of their project through this blog. Stay tuned!

José Roca, curator, Doing Time