And mark time they did, whiling away their limited visa time doing research in archives and libraries on the historic Northeast Philadelphia prison for their project, titled Doing Time/Depth of Surface, which was commissioned by Philagrafika and opened Saturday at the Galleries at Moore College of Art & Design. It runs through March 17.
Once inside the prison, which was decommissioned in 1995 after a century of housing inmates, the women did not have the luxury of testing, contemplating, or rethinking, as they had done with two previous prison projects. The walls were coming apart around them. They had to work fast.
"We'd like to have done more small samples, small prints, more works to put in the exhibition," said Gómez, 33, who met González, 34, at a university in Valencia, Spain. They have collaborated on two other abandoned-prison projects, in Valencia's Modelo Prison and a prison in Palma. "Even though walls were deteriorating, a lot of information was preserved under the walls."
They experimented on the fly with 15 types of glue and wondered how, with paint falling in so much of the prison, some surfaces still were resistant to being lifted off. They resigned themselves to a having just one shot at lifting the surface paint from the walls with a centuries-old conservation technique known as strappo. In all, they worked three weeks.
What they ended up with was the complete surface walls of two cells - preserved on special linen and fashioned into something resembling a giant snake's skin - and several dozen smaller prints of drawings, paintings, newspaper clippings, and graffiti left on the walls by former inmates.
"For Who? For What?" one Philadelphia Daily News headline screams out, turning Eagles newbie Ricky Watters' infamous 1995 line about why he short-armed a pass to avoid getting hammered into an ironic commentary on the mind of a prisoner doing time.
Other prints contain portrait-like drawings of a man who looks like rapper Ice-T, a naked woman, and an entire poem written in pencil on a cell wall, with only fragments still legible, surviving to create a poignant poem within a poem: my suffering, set free, loneliness, men cry.
The two artists, speaking recently inside the Gallery at Moore as they prepared the rolls of cloth bearing cell-wall paint for exhibition, said they were moved by the experience of being inside Holmesburg despite, or maybe because of, the conditions under which they worked: darkness, extreme humidity, cumbersome precautions for work with lead paint, and deterioration that accelerated minute by minute.
"It was sensorially very closed off," said González, through interpreter Patricia Manley. "We were afraid to be in there by ourselves. We didn't leave each other's side.
"We have the greatest respect for the people who lived there. We had to weigh our emotions, pulling personal and private emotional things. We had to ask ourselves, is this the right thing to do? We did it with respect, but we had to ask ourselves, is it right? We decided we were giving voice to prisoners who wanted to be heard.
"The crumbling of the walls was a physical representation of how people's lives changed," she said. "The system balls them up and throws them out. The penitentiary system is one of isolation and deformity."
Exhibition curator José Roca first came across the pair's work while doing research for the Philadelphia international art festival "Philagrafika 2010: The Graphic Unconscious," for which he was art director. He thought their work complex enough to merit a commission; it fit with Philagrafika's mission of expanding the boundaries of the print medium to, in this case, literally lifting off the surface of walls.
"There is truth to the common adage 'if walls could talk,' in the sense of being the silent witnesses of what happens over time, which is physically and metaphorically imprinted in them," Roca said.
The artists say they wish they could identify and contact inmates who actually lived in the cells whose walls they transferred, and they welcome any former inmates to attend the show at Moore.
Their monoprints of the surface of the institutional green-painted walls of two complete cells - cells 560 and 805 - are displayed in a pyramid-like shape on the floor. Certain parts are recognizable - the imprint of the door, the air vent - but otherwise, it is more abstracted. "The way it's displayed is also an artistic part," said Gómez, ". . . like a big skin falling on the floor."
Photographs of Holmesburg and the cells are displayed on the walls, along with the prints of the artwork found on the walls. The artists also arranged for a former Holmesburg prison guard, David Owens, who later became superintendent of the Philadelphia prison system, to read from a prison log in an audio loop that is played in the gallery. Most of what he says is, "All appears to be normal," over and over.
Said González, "There is no normalcy."
Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @amysrosenberg on Twitter.