PHILADELPHIA – When curators David Dempewolf and Yuka Yokoyama invite an artist to develop an exhibit at Marginal Utility, an artist-run space just north of Chinatown, they ask two years in advance. Ideally, they want to encourage artists to develop exhibits that are specific to the gallery space. But they also want to challenge artists to work in new ways.
Approaching David Guinn, a well-known, Philadelphia-based muralist, Dempewolf and Yokoyama were curious to see how the artist would adapt his work to the indoor, controlled environment of a black box gallery. For most of his career, Guinn has painted in the elements, working with changing weather and light. A couple of days after the curators’ initial proposal, Guinn described what ended up becoming Night Room, on exhibit at Marginal Utility through January 15.
For Night Room, Guinn treated the two rooms in the gallery as different parts of the mind. The outer room, with its large diagonals of color, struck me as the conscious mind, the public persona that one might safely show the world. Although the lines and colors in the room initially appear clean and uniform, they aren’t. That’s not Guinn’s intention.
Drawing on his experiences as an outdoor muralist, Guinn subtly changes the color gradient for each section of the wall. These changes are indoor replications of how paint might work with light outdoors. A blue wall, divided in half diagonally, is perhaps the most dominant part of the first room, the light blue of the upper half pushing through the darker surface of the lower portion.
Night Room becomes more immersive as one moves through the peaked and low clearance threshold into the next room. Designed as an intriguing optical illusion, I expected I would need to duck to cross the threshold, but I found that if I walked directly through the peaked area, I could make it. I would venture a guess that many visitors, no matter their height, would have the same impulse to lower their heads.
If the first room represents the conscious, public mind, then the internal room reflects the unconscious, filled with both wonder and conflict. Along the back wall, Guinn demarcates two separate areas with a strip of pink electroluminescent light. This strip, with its upward progression, replicates the outline of a set of stairs left on the exterior wall of a rowhouse after the one next to it has been demolished. Philadelphia, with its simultaneous decay and development, has many buildings in this ghostly condition. Over the years, I would assume Guinn has been commissioned to paint over these apparitions several times.
Standing near the back of this internal space, I remained aware of the outer room. But as I stepped further in, I surrendered to the internal space. On the wall furthest from the doorway, Guinn has painted a large triangle containing an array of angles and curves that range in color from blue to black and from yellow to pink to brown. He frames this triangle with a strip of LED light that changes its hue every few seconds, as well as four different stripes of paint on either side. To wonderful effect, the fluctuations in light influence one’s perception of the colors on the walls, making it impossible to know what the actual colors might be in normal lighting.
A slowed down version of The Doors’ song “The End” by Yanni Papadopoulos is audible throughout the exhibit. In the second room, this soundtrack becomes louder and provides a profound intertextual dimension to Night Room, with footage from the last scenes of Apocalypse Now (1979) projected onto the large triangle of paint and light. (The original version of the song features in both the opening and final scenes of the film.)
The images begin with Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) rising from the water, his face covered in mud, on his way to exterminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), with “extreme prejudice.” Kurtz is last seen muttering his final, famous words, “The horror, the horror.” The music and film clips, both on a loop, create an atmosphere of fixation, in which the murder of the despotic Kurtz seems clear and just.
Night Room opened less than a week before the election of Donald Trump. In the election’s wake, Guinn added this footage from Apocalypse Now. Dempewolf and Yokoyama, like Guinn, understand that no work of art can avoid the impact of this impending presidency.
Guinn’s exhibit disturbed me in the most productive way possible. The more time I spent inside it, the more I wanted to stay. It possesses a gravitational force to which most works of art aspire. I wanted to go deeper and deeper into that room, until it was time to surface for air and do what is clear and just: produce work that puts pressure on power.
Night Room continues at Marginal Utility (319 North 11th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through January 15.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.