The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
In the Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design there is a project on display, courtesy of Philagrafika by Spanish artists María Jesús González and Patricia Gómez, entitled “Doing Time | Depth of Surface,” which will be on display through March 17.
The installation of photos, videos and large-scale prints comes from their residency at the decommissioned Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia. The prison, modeled after the Eastern State Penitentiary wheel and spoke design, was built in 1896 and stayed in use for nearly a century until 1995.
With a shared interest in art conservation, the two artists utilize a version of a process known as strappo — an Italian word which means rip or tear — to detach the interior walls of Holmesburg as a sort of preservation technique. The walls are painted with glues and then adhered to fabric which is then removed, along with the top layers of the wall, to create a massive print ,which serves as a record of the prison’s interior before it is demolished. The prints are covered in the old paint, as well as drawings and markings left by inmates.
Although the process is related to art conservation techniques, it is also technically a print — albeit a very unique type of print. The methods are documented in the exhibition by photos and surveillance-style videos from the prison, with the print stretched out along the floor in the center of the room.
Echoing throughout the space is the voice of a former guard from Holmesburg reading from the facility’s old log books. This incantation is repetitive and eerie, citing mostly the same information in slightly altered configurations. The guard reads the times from the log and states “All appears to be normal.” This statement, while surely mundane for the guards at the time, begs the question of what exactly “normal” is, especially within the confines of a penal setting such as this. Life within the walls of a penitentiary is anything but normal for most of the outside world.
This project is Gómez + González’s first exhibition in the United States, and it makes for a powerful look into the lives of the forgotten prisoners of Holmesburg, as well as inmates throughout history. It captures the prison itself in a multimedia record, which also examines the lives of the guards, the building itself and its history and the methods used for preserving and reproducing the cells’ interiors.
The Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design are located at 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway; 215.965.4027.