Established in 1896, Holmesburg Prison in northeastern Philadelphia stood as a model for penal reform. It featured forced heat, flush toilets and—most importantly—a single cell for every inmate. The perverse hope of this new “penitentiary” was that solitary confinement would restore prisoners to their better nature; but the now derelict Holmesburg attests to grimmer results. Excavating this history from the very walls on which it was etched, Spanish artists Patricia Gómez Villaescusa and María Jesús González Fernández, who collaborate as Gómez + González, created videos, photographs and large-scale prints during their residency at the prison. The resulting exhibition, sponsored by the prints exhibitions initiative Philagrafika and presented at Moore College of Art and Design, deployed the monotype to map the psychological terrain of spatial confinement.
“We approached the project with the respect of someone making the last representation,” Gómez + González explained in tandem with one translator, referring to the fact that after 100 years of consecutive use, Holmesburg is set for demolition. Working quickly to find the right elixir, the artists faced the constraints of both time and chemistry: “We had to take chances, knowing that each experiment with peeling could not be repeated if it did not work.”
At the core of the exhibition is Holmesburg Prison (all works 2011), a colossal print whose stippled surface of blue, green and cream paint chips curls like flayed skin. Adhered to black fabric through a process similar to the mural conservation technique known as strappo, paint ripped directly from the prison walls forms the ghostly patina of a cell. Five photographs of cell 560, all titled a variation of Cell 560 Holmesburg Prison, and All Appears to Be Normal, a cluster of monitors looping grainy surveillance footage shot during their residency, stood as mute evidence for the artists’ on-site activity-crucial records of a building that may soon live on only in infamy.
Though painstakingly extracted through a delicate chemical process, the imprint of prison cell number 805 was displayed in a haphazard heap on the gallery floor. The geometrically faithful transfer of doorways, windows, radiators and solid walls lifted during the printing process falters as the fabric buckles into voluminous waves in the gallery. Euclidian space and institutional paint heave into abstraction, foiling the logic of a space designed to maintain order. “The shapelessness of the fabric in the gallery preserves the moment of its making,” reasoned Gómez + González, who like the idea of skinning the rigid walls that confined so many. “We think that a cell is the second skin of the inmates. It both isolated and enveloped them for so many years.”
Time is the subject of All Appears to be Normal. In a 4-hour, 45-minute audio recording, a retired Holmesburg prison guard reads entries from a logbook unearthed at the abandoned site. Reciting “All appears to be normal” on an endless loop, the guard asserts the ruthless monotony—and lunatic irony—of prison time. A wall of monotypes displaying personal graffiti by inmates suggests a similar compulsion to retain normalcy through the arbitrary markers of passing time. Parceled out in lists of days clocked, workouts completed and countdowns to release, Depth of Surface. Written Messages, Marks and Drawings on Holmesburg Walls identifies time as a hostile agent, compartmentalized by prisoners so as to be endured. What remains is an archive of time inscribed in space-an index whose visceral potency springs from the essential materiality of the prison walls themselves.