Two Spanish artists remove & preserve inmates' graffiti from Holmesburg Prison

Maria Jesus Gonzalez Fernandez, left, and Patricia Gomez Villaescusa's creation opens Friday at the Moore College of Art and Design. (Patricia Gomez Villaescusa and Maria Jesus Gonzalez Fernandez)
Maria Jesus Gonzalez Fernandez, left, and Patricia Gomez Villaescusa's creation opens Friday at the Moore College of Art and Design. (Patricia Gomez Villaescusa and Maria Jesus Gonzalez Fernandez)
Posted: January 25, 2012

EVERYONE knows the adage that begins, "If these walls could talk . . . "

But in the eyes of Spanish artists Patricia Gomez Villaescusa and Maria Jesus Gonzalez Fernandez, even silent walls have plenty of stories to tell. The problem is not that the walls are mute; it's the fact that, eventually, walls fall down.

"We always choose buildings and structures that are destined to disappear," Gomez said, through a translator. That's how the pair came to use historic Holmesburg Prison for their latest piece, "Doing Time/Depth of Surface," opening Friday at Moore College of Art and Design.

"The major impetus for us is to preserve the memories of the structures, the history of the building and how people lived in it by literally taking the paint off the walls and preserving the writings and the things that people have left behind," Gomez said.

The two artists employ a modified version of a process known as strappo, an Italian word literally meaning to rip or tear, in which a layer of fabric is glued to a wall and then peeled away, taking surface layers with it. The technique is most often used for mural conservation, but Gomez and Gonzalez go beyond preservation to reflect on the walls they interpret and, most important, the lives lived within them.

For "Doing Time," the pair explored the interior of Philadelphia's historic Holmesburg Prison, decommissioned in 1995 after nearly a century in operation. Like its more famous sibling, Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount, the prison has rapidly deteriorated, presenting the artists with a haunting space - walls covered with peeling paint and fading graffiti.

There are no plans to demolish the building - it's being used for training exercises, and one section's been remodeled to take overflow from other prisons - but the artists still "felt an urgency to preserve this particular site," Gonzalez said. "It was decaying in front of our eyes.

"We would find drawings or writings on the walls and take photographs to remember to go back and put the canvas up. Two days later we would go back and have to ask, 'Where did it go?'

"Things were disappearing in front of us. The only sound we could hear inside the prison was the sound of paint falling from the walls onto the floor. It was a very scary place to be."

The exhibition was commissioned by Philagrafika, which promotes and sustains printmaking in all of its myriad manifestations. This will be the organization's first show since its eponymous citywide festival in 2010.

The layers of paint that Gomez and Gonzalez have peeled from walls may seem like an unusual definition of a "print," but curator Jose Roca explained that "their radical understanding of the print resonated with Philagrafika's avowed mission of expanding the conceptual and technical frontiers of printmaking."

"Doing Time/Depth of Surface" conveys the artists' experience within Holmesburg's walls in a variety of media. The walls and ceiling of two cells, preserved on black canvas, take up the center of Moore College's Goldie Paley Gallery, crumpled in heaps like the shedding of skin. The mound of fabric, Roca said, "from a distance resembles topography, or a shroud over a dead body. Upon closer inspection, you can see that there are bits of paint adhered to the fabric, and you understand that it is the entire inner surface of a cell that has been peeled away. It is a very powerful piece, visually, experientially and conceptually."

One wall will be covered by a wealth of strappo-preserved images from the cells: sketches, portraits, graffiti, calendars. The latter represents an important aspect of the piece: the passage of time. Gomez and Gonzalez also created an audio installation featuring a former Holmesburg guard reading aloud from log books he and his colleagues were required to maintain during their shifts. At 15-minute intervals, guards had to update the books, most of which consist of entry after entry reading, "All appears to be normal."

"His voice just becomes monotonous," Gomez said. "We wanted to convey how slowly time passed, how it was so much the same all the time. We got the impression that the guards were just as much prisoners there as the prisoners."

Gonzalez added, "There's also an ironic juxtaposition where the guard is writing down, 'All is normal,' and yet there's nothing normal about being in prison. By repeating it over and over again, it was almost as if the guards were reaffirming that this was their normal life, but it really wasn't once you walked outside of the prison."

Gomez and Gonzalez met when they were students at the Facultad de Bellas Artes de Valencia in Spain and discovered the strappo technique during a yearlong sojourn to study in Italy. They first experimented with the method using an old, abandoned house.

"It was like magic," Gonzalez recalled. "We couldn't wait to see what was underneath when we peeled the fabric off. Then it grew into a way to archive forgotten places."

Although "Doing Time/Depth of Surface" is the duo's first exhibition in the U.S., it is their fourth collaboration in this vein. Their first involved creating prints from the interiors of a dozen houses that were among 1,500 slated for demolition as part of an urban-renewal project in their native Valencia. They've since replicated the process in prisons in Valencia and Palma. They have in the past worked directly with prisoners and, in Holmesburg's case, with former guards to research life within the institutions.

Why so many prisons?

Gomez explained: "We intuited that the writings on the walls would not be visible to people under normal circumstances, and if they disappeared, no one would know that they existed. The stories are also more interesting inside of a prison than in other types of architecture because it's so personal.

"Whatever a prisoner writes on a wall is much more meaningful, because no one is going to see it but them."

Through their work, the inherently private space in a prison becomes suddenly public, the random artwork of prisoners and the very walls of their cells the makings of starkly captivating prints.

"Because we've been trained in the arts, we're looking for the beauty of the print," Gonzalez said of their approach. "We're very aware that this is not a beautiful place, but that doesn't diminish the value of archiving these kinds of memories. We bring to it an artistic view of common things. They may not be the most beautiful things, but they're worth preserving, and they say something."


Philagrafika presents "Doing Time/Depth of Surface," Moore College of Art & Design, 20th Street and Ben Franklin Parkway, Saturday through March 17, free. Opening reception: 6-8 p.m. Friday, 215-965-4027, www.thegalleriesatmoore.org, www.philagrafika.org.

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