The Spanish artists Patricia Gómez and María Jesús González, who exhibit under the moniker Gómez + González, fashion works from the vestiges of soon-to-be-demolished places. In these architectural spaces, they put their training as printmakers to use, creating monoprints of walls and doorways, using a modified version of strappo, a technique used in the conservation of frescoes. Instead of a copper plate or lithography stone, the matrix for the print is provided by the building itself, whose outer skin is transferred to a thin, transparent fabric. The prints are complemented by photographs and video documenting the process and the sites.
Gómez + González’s first project in this vein involved the houses of a neighborhood slated to be razed in their native Valencia, but since then they have turned their attention to decommissioned prisons — two in Spain and, most recently, at the invitation of the print collective Philagrafika, the Holmesburg facility in northeast Philadelphia, defunct since 1995. A related exhibition showing the results of their Holmesburg residency, Doing Time / Depth of Surface, the artists’ first American show, is currently on view at the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia.
Both in their thirties, the artists work in an idiom that owes much to the documentary ethos of Bernd and Hilla Becher, recording correspondences and variations among utilitarian structures at different sites. But having come of age as artists during our current “memory boom” (Andreas Huyssen’s phrase), they are even more indebted to the memorializing works of artists such as Christian Boltanski and Krzysztof Wodiczko. They approach the work of salvage and commemoration as if it were a solemn calling.
“Where nothing remains of a place and its walls are the sole element left to tell a story, our job is to reclaim and reveal those histories,” they told José Roca, curator of the Moore College exhibition. “The passage of time has rendered these signs on the wall providing historical, social and sentimental information, which is on the verge of being lost forever.” It’s worth noting that the specter of loss invoked here is above all an enabling trope, at least at Holmesburg, because the facility has already been well documented. The medical experimentation performed on prisoners there was the subject of a book, and In Prison Air (2005), Thomas Roma’s photographic survey of the facility’s empty, decaying cells — images of Aaron Siskind-like flaking paint and otherworldly light — overlaps significantly with Gómez + González’s treatment of the prison. Their project is as much a performance of the act of preservation as it is a rescue of the site’s traces from obliteration.
Gómez + González’s attitudes about the past and its marginalized populations imbue their efforts with urgency and purpose, without which their laborious and at times hazardous efforts might seem quixotic or merely eccentric. But their reverence toward these crumbling prisons as repositories of “historical, social and sentimental information” risks becoming a kind of high-concept piety. Their historicism is highly generalized, and there is little sense of the actual experience of the prison population — much studied by anthropologists, journalists, and novelists — beyond their cell-block scrawls.
And yet it’s undeniable that these works exert an eerie magnetism that seems to herald some sort of immanence or looming transcendence. The large-scale monoprint that provides the centerpiece of Doing Time has been slung across the floor in a heap of material that suggests the sloughed-off skin of a snake. The religious symbolism is unavoidable, as is the reference to the medical experiments at the prison, which horrifically damaged the skin of the participants; but the print’s insistent materiality is forceful enough that it resonates with such associations rather than seems a mere prop for them.
In Marks and Scars (2011), a large wall hanging comprising 81 prints, gleanings from various Holmesburg cells form a collage of buckling paint patterns, graffiti, and yellowing newspaper fragments. Having roughly the same dimensions, the individual sheets of fabric suggest the pages of a book, spread out and pieced together into a quilt-like membrane. Despite the bluntness of some of the scrawls — juxtaposed on two adjacent sheets are the messages “The way to life is Jesus” and “I’m out pussy” — the overall effect is one of delicacy and lightness, with the top layer of sheets projecting slightly from the wall and casting shadows, as if we were witnessing a benign variation on the peeling and flaking that has long ravaged the abandoned cells at Holmesburg. Here deterioration becomes the vehicle for a restrained and surprising lyricism, all the more unexpected because it encompasses the crude markings of the inmates’ boredom and despair.
In such a transformation testimonial is eclipsed by the poetry of decay. Gómez + González’s declared aim may be to reveal hidden or obscured histories, but at its core their work’s power derives from the dilapidation of their chosen worksites. What the Holmesburg project offers is a fresh variation on the contemplation of the ruin, that venerable aesthetic theme stretching back at least as far as the eighteenth century. Design critic Rick Poyner has recently noted the continued flourishing of the contemporary ruin as an aesthetic subject — enough to sustain a backlash, as detractors have slapped the tag “ruin porn” onto the imagery of abandoned sites. In its defense, he observes that the ruin “is a special zone charged with an intensity and a potential for revelation,” allowing “an interlude of release that is not accessible to crowds (it may well be unsafe) … and not commercialized.” Such forbidding and forbidden places are permeated with a ragged glamour all their own.
Ruins are places uncannily alive, because they foreground the decay that slowly pulses through all life. Images of ruins usually impart a sense of melancholy or slightly stunned witness. Gómez + González are distinct from the long line of painters and photographers depicting such wreckage because their works are objects, creations that emerge out of prolonged physical contact with the very stuff of their chosen sites. Over weeks and months of attentive labor the distance between artist and ruin collapses. Out of the encounter comes not just a historical record but newly fabricated things — mysterious and austere, humanely conceived and meticulously made.
Doing Time/ Depth of Surface is on view through March 17 at The Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design (20th Street & Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia).
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