Life presents itself as a series of stressful events, good and bad, and the task of becoming is often stymied by the overwhelming nature of reality. In those moments remember: Art! presents the ridiculous beauty and joy of the world. I saw this message written in the forgotten space of a bare, utilitarian façade above an old movie theater in New York’s East Village. It was a crisp, clear day. My heart was lifted, buoyed by the shared spirit of appreciation. When the news is bad, solace is at hand, if you look for it in the arts.
There’s something special about faces on buildings. I don’t mean advertising billboards—even when painted on, billboards are too slick to have the same affect. Faces on buildings stare out at you like a totemic god, a tiny shrine writ large. I spotted this first face in the Greektown neighborhood of downtown Detroit. It’s wry and literary-looking.
This face, a portrait of Ann Frank, is more commanding. It’s visually stark in large blocks of black and white. For me the image is a representation of the holocaust, causing no emotion that the face of a cheerful little girl would usually stir. Her name is not written there, just the words, “Believe in People” on the top right. It’s a compelling portrait, especially at this size. This is painted behind the Yale School of Art in on Crown Street. I hope it stays up for a while. Was it someone’s final project?
A block away are a series of blank buildings, large facades with no windows or doors, no human scale. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to paint faces here? The side of this Walgreens pharma-superstore dropped in a sea of parking (with a strangely short parking structure next door) would be a perfect candidate. Perhaps something similar to Jaume Plensa’s portrait fountain in Chicago’s Millenium Park, with the faces of local New Haven residents. It would be like Felice Varini’s Square with Four Circles on the garage downtown. Here’s my mock up for your review.
I have fallen in love with Bittertang. They are a duo of artist/architects who refer to their studio as “the farm.” Michael Loverich and Antonio Torres spoke last Tuesday night at Parsons, accepting The Architectural League Prize (one of six firms to win it this year), and introducing their bizarre work. They espouse a love for the hilarious and the pleasurable, and point to the Rococo as an underutilized source of inspiration. (They showed a photo very similar to the 1767 Fragonard painting above, “L’Essaim d’Amour,” or Swarm of Love, which they called a “baby omelet.”) Not only has poché returned in a big way, but folly and fancy breathe new life as well. “Architecture should be hilarious!” they declared, and I agree. After all, humor in the face of the chaos and horror of the world is a path to redemption. Like Tschumi’s follies in Parc de la Villette. The work of Bittertang is unsettling as well, for example all the “babies” they invented, but what disturbs me also intrigues me. Not unlike the work of Dinos and Jake Chapman. Take, for example, the succulent piñata pictured above, from The Architectural League Prize exhibition at Parsons, inspired by the story of Romulus and Remus. I wanted to steal it and take it home with me. Yum!
There’s significance in an outline, especially a black one. Van Gogh began painting objects and subjects with a heavy outline after discovering an aesthetic affinity for Japanese woodcuts, which used the same technique in a flattened space. Consider the pool table in The Night Café (Yale University Art Gallery, 1888), or the coat in Self-portrait with bandaged ear and pipe (private collection, 1889).
In sculpture and architecture, outlines are less common. Objects are three dimensional, after all, why would they require an outline? Yet in buildings where outlines are present, something magical happens: dimensions mix—2D and 3D intertwine. There’s an optical game at play. The world around you becomes a cartoonish, surreal hyper-reality wherein objects gain greater clarity and space recedes. This is a trope in Neil Denari’s work, where dark reveals create outlines at planar junctions. He used this technique in the Alan-Voo House, Endeavor Offices, and L.A. Eyeworks (projects completed 2007, 2004, and 2002 respectively, all located in Los Angeles). At the MUFG sites in Japan, the dark outline is replaced with dark wood against white walls. Another example is a façade restoration of a baroque church in Rome. Sadly, in 2004, when I took this picture I did not record its name. If you recognize it, please let me know; it inspired this post. With black baseboards and an outlined ceiling, The Museum of the City of New York’s lobby displays a similar effect, as shown here with Denari’s “Vert-Eco,” (if you click through) exhibited in 2008.
The subject of the physical outline or reveal, a literal dark boundary painted onto or carved into an object or surface, seems an interesting site to mine—not for meaning, but for progenitors and effects. Perhaps this is the result of the intensely virtual life we live, amongst so many video games with well-defined edges.