The point of convergence between architecture and the visual art is sometimes a very muddy place, with misunderstanding, misappropriation and misinterpretation occurring in both directions, often simultaneously.
It is refreshing, then, to find a body of work that engages architecture in all its nuanced depth while remaining firmly embedded in its own art-making mileu.
Penelope Stewart has been engaged in an admirably trans-disciplinary, critically recognized art practice for over two decades. In her words she is ‘fixated on invisible architecture’. She is concerned with the simultaneity of what is usually seen as binary tensions: architecture and ornament, nature and culture, real and imaginary, visible and invisible, absence and presence. These tensions are what collectively give architecture its power.
Much of Stewart’s work is photography based. The photographs themselves are powerful and evocative, usually concerned with the articulated ornamental detail or composition. Once created however, they are generally not left to themselves. They are manipulated through inversion, projection, printing and installation, and usually act as one vector in a much larger ‘in-situ’ work that also engages space, materiality, the body and most importantly, the senses.
Stewart’s work is most interesting when the fragmented photographic details are magnified and transposed onto scrim like material and inserted into a gallery or installation setting. These pieces re-configure existing spaces through the creation of temporary, mobile architectural interventions, superimposing ephemeral structures within the existing. The work implicitly questions normative architectural notions of scale, sequence and tectonic composition, while embedding into the space meaning and nuance architecture itself can rarely achieve.
A poetic iteration of this work is Terminal, installed at a derelict train platform in Buffalo, New York in 2006. The work weaves a 9’ high piece of photo-printed cloth through the columns of the platform for over 500'. It is loosely attached and engages the wind to find its form. The tension between materials (the silk organza scrim and the found and corroding iron) placed in the context of a moribund architecture project a surprising optimism through the recalibration of perceptions and expectation.
A more ambitious work altogether is Stewart’s Genius Loci, the genius of the place or disorder of the picturesque. This is a large body of photo-based inquiry, spanning several years and several distinct projects. The work implicates the Glasshouses and Conservatories of the 19th and 20th century. Stewart refers to them as ‘ Barthesian sites of loss and desire’ where the complex tension between the utopian and modernist intentions, and the explicit and implicit ornamentality they often exhibit, are fertile ground for an artist interested in contradiction in both art and architecture.
The dialog between art and architecture is increasingly complex. It is a worthwhile endeavor when each is understood fully and exist within a mutually beneficial entanglement. It is at its best when they are fascinated with each other, and this fascination brings about gentle and nuanced lessons. Penelope Stewart offers us such lessons.
Andrew King is a practitioner and educator currently teaching at McGill University’s School of Architecture and Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism. He was the Canada Council for the Arts Prix de Rome Laureate for 2004.