Emirates Fine Art Society’s
29th Annual Exhibition Submission, 2011
Transparencies on 12, 8.5″x10″ Sintra Panels
The 2010 visiting artist at my Grad School was Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem. Mohammed became a good friend and someone I consider to be one of my most influential mentors. Late one night, amidst one of many influential conversations about art, he mentioned off-handedly that he wanted to bring a group of us to Dubai and find a way to exhibit our work. I interpreted this as to mean he was just going to rent out a space, hang some of our work, and use that as an excuse to bring us to Dubai. Instead, he recommended that we all apply to the Sharjah Art Foundation‘s 29th Annual Exhibition. 11 of us were accepted. The exhibit was curated by Layla Abdallah.
What I submitted was the culmination of a series of collages that stemmed from a serious problem I was having materially. I was exploring workspaces, specifically cubicles, and had taken some reference photographs of an office where I had worked prior to Grad School. The company had just gone through major layoffs, which I would likely have been a victim of if not for leaving for school. So the office that once housed over 50 employees was now an office of about 15 people. So 2/3 of the office space was empty, including my old workstations. The empty spaces became the most interesting aspect of the photographs. No people, just rows and rows of empty desks. So I made a few paintings based on these photos, as oil paint is my default material. Here’s where the material problem arose. While I was trying to evoke emptiness, sadness, and emphasize the human absence, the material I had used is attractive, comforting, and welcoming. So I had to adjust my approach, and at the time colláge was increasingly becoming a tool for experimenting with ideas.
Ultimately what I wanted to do was create a sense of tension and unease. And a question that arose during critique (and an idea that was reinforced later by Mohammed), is why paint the spaces when I already had the photographs? Oil paint, or any material, needs to serve the idea, and in this case, it didn’t. This led quickly to printing the photos on transparencies as that allowed me to play with the space in the image, specifically letting me collapse space by overlaying different pictures of different spaces. I also started inserting figures into the spaces that otherwise wouldn’t be found in an office, from the homeless to individuals from the Great Depression (an idea that bled over from early WATN research). By layering different images the viewer would have to lean in close to see what I had hidden there, drawing them into these collapsed spaces. Each layer would be chosen based on formal relationships with the previous layer, aligning certain elements to merge elements, while revealing other elements when needed. This gave me the tension I needed.
At the same time, I was doing research for my thesis and came across an article that tied monastic cells to modern offices. Monastic cells were designed for solitude so the monks could meditate, pray, and inscribe scripture without worldly distractions. These cells are at the very least an interesting parallel to offices and at best a direct progenitor to them. So I added a religious theme by creating 12 individual panels that corresponded to the Catholic Twelve Stations of the Cross. I thought the title also tied together Catholic Stations and workstations quite nicely. An interesting side note, Penitentiary cells also arose from the Monastic cell. The idea was that solitude, meditation, and removal from worldly distractions would encourage prisoners to learn penitence, hence the name of the institution.
This makes me wonder if my disdain for cubicles is due to my office cell’s inability to instill penitence in me, much as Penitentiary cells fail to be a deterrent to crime…