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Space, Murals and the Social Sublime

Critics and art historians should recognize all the potential sources of power in murals, especially the possible roles of the buildings themselves in defining social space.
Tim Drescher

Along a second floor corridor in a California prison a mural graces one wall of the narrow hallway leading to an interior gate. Anyone passing through this gate must wait while guards decide if they will permit passage. While waiting, one’s attention is naturally drawn to the mural, which is a double self portrait painted by a prisoner. One view is of him as a young man with rainbows in his glasses. In the other he is an old con with prison bars in his glasses. The question the mural poses, of course, is which one will it be? a question each prison observer must ask and answer for himself. But the portraits are too large for the space, and you find yourself pressing your back against the wall opposite the mural, thinking “If only I could get a few feet further from the mural, I could get it into focus,” a statement of physical fact. Three feet further, of course, means outside the prison wall, which is what, the mural says, is needed to get one’s self into focus.

This mural’s meaning depends on its spatial manipulation of the relation between its location and its scale, that is, a sophisticated awareness of the relation between architecture and painted surface. The final result is more powerful than could be achieved by paint alone because it enlists the building’s mass, a factor rarely considered in mural analysis.

Too many community mural analyses take wall paintings to be mere illustrations of a particular idea. An approach that ignores the potentials of the mural medium itself. There’s more going on than illustration with murals, and taking the mural’s use of space into account prevents such oversimplification. Consideration of space and murals is just one characteristic of several that need to be considered in any decent analytical treatment of the medium, which is true of analyses of any artwork in any medium, but often forgotten in the rush to get to the “meaning.” Of course, the role of any architectural manipulation in contributing to meaning must be considered. The analytical challenge is to articulate multiple simultaneous elements and their relationships with each other in order to extricate a full, dialectical awareness of the particular object (mural) under investigation.

Space can be an important element in a large mural, while the relationship of painting and architecture contributes to a sense of awe or sublimity. In twentieth century community murals, this sublimity relates more to socio-political space than to Romantic vistas which were early 19th-century sources of the notion of sublimity, hence the “social” sublime. We are talking here of a late 20th-early 21st-century variant of early 19th-century alpine vistas that so inspired Romantic poets and travelers.

Begin with size and scale, the relation between a building’s mass and a human-sized observer. The difference between the two can be awe inspiring, a space that can be used to increase the social impact of a big, public mural.

The transfer of the notion of sublimity from European Romantic poetry here offers a useful perspective. The standard meaning of “sublime,” is that “ it was synonymous with irresistible forces that produced overwhelming sensations. ..a natural force that dwarfed the Individual human figure.” This feeling of sublimity derived from size and from an awareness of massively different scales of vision. Today’s urban setting offers a similar disjunction of buildings and human observers which murals can use to their advantage. “The effect was simultaneously to make one conscious of one's own comparative weakness in the face of natural might and to produce a sense of the strength of one's own faculties.”

A similar dynamic operates in urban settings, creating the possibility of a “social sublime.” Increasing the emotional impact, the social sublime broadens murals’ reach by stressing the social space and how people and not just individuals inhabit it.

To cite a simple example, a ship painted on a wall can have much greater visual (and emotional) impact if its prow is matched to the building’s corner. A mural incorporating architectural space thus becomes a link between the real and the representational. It isn’t that the technique is trying to fool an observer as in trompe l’oeil, but to enlist the building and its mass to increase the impact on the viewer.

With this sort of spatial awareness, a mural can function as a kind of architectural underlining, emphasizing a particular architectural element. One example is Josh Sarantitis’s Philadelphia mural Reach High and you Will Go Far, which shows a young person symbolically holding a small tree above her head, the branches of which break the frame of the wall, extending above it. This simple gesture effectively destroys the brick and concrete building shape, and thus figuratively demonstrates political activism, refusing to be contained by established structures (physical-architectural and socio-political both).

A famous Renaissance example of spatial manipulation via architectural incorporation is Raphael's School of Athens whose stairs open onto the Stanza Della Segnatura at the Vatican, the room in which the observer stands to view the mural. Keith Sklar executes a variation on this in his Oakland mural Mitzvah: The Jewish Cultural Experience, where famous local Jews are depicted walking down the steps and are "deposited" into a parking lot, Sklar's wry comment on prevalent anti-Semitism in our society. In both these examples, the stairway down from the wall into the observer’s space allows for the observer to be included in the mural’s space. Realizing this spatial “move” can provoke strong feelings in a person.

That the presence of murals can alter a space from merely empty to intimate is obvious. Take New York's La Lucha Continua, where an interconnecting series of vacant lots became an intimate mini-park, defined by its murals and not its bare walls. That buildings and murals exist in relation to other buildings and sometimes other murals is obvious enough, once it has been pointed out. Buildings are large enough to define adjacent "empty" space, in the way that sculpture is not merely the shape of the materials used to form it, but how those shapes define adjacent space. In this sense, creative incorporation of architectural details can change a building and the viewing experience, as in Mark Rogovin's Break the Grip of the Absentee Landlord, where an airshaft is made to extend into the distance, creating a three dimensional portrayal of slumlords as far as the eye can see. At the back end of this building, the mural has been painted as flames engulfing the building and its residents, much as actual fires destroy actual buildings and people. In terms of scale, the rear of the building has been “domesticated” from the epic-scale landlord recession to the immediate, bringing the mural “home” to the vacant lot from which the mural is viewed, but depends on manipulation of architectural space.

These examples argue for a more active role of murals in creating socio-political space, and more sensitive, mural-cognizant analyses of them, including size, architectural relationships, relative locations.

Critics and art historians should recognize all the potential sources of power in murals, especially the possible roles of the buildings themselves in defining social space. They are big, and so might be their murals, even awe-inspiring, sublime. They can be surprisingly powerful just because of their mass, and murals can take advantage of that to their own ends. The job of mural critics includes being aware of these factors and appropriately incorporating them into their analyses.

Tim Drescher is a community murals and peoples' art historian.
Josh Sarantitis mural courtesy

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