The Unfinished Construction Sites are a playful exploration of space in transition. While most gestation periods are contained or enclosed, buildings “grow” out in the open. The structure is sort of naked, and all it’s little miraculous systems are exposed. They transform day by day, and I would argue that this is when they are at their most beautiful and organic. An architect can have a truly beautiful vision but like a finished painting, there’s a quality of illusion in that finished building. There’s a masking of structure and purpose. In this drawing series I really wanted to reinstall that magical sense of becoming. Each day the building is unfinished it’s special and different, even if it’s awkward and unstable. The Unfinished Construction Sites are a way of honoring what could be.
What promoted the project?
The project really began as a sketchbook series. I was commuting by bus from Philadelphia to New York once a week to teach, and there’s not much to do other than observe construction. It’s painted orange, it’s noisy, dusty; it draws the eye. It’s unignorable, but people generally try to ignore it as a nuisance when it’s really this utterly amazing process happening in front of you. Even just a highway overpass is a feat of incredible complexity and human effort and ingenuity. And at this time the Jersey Turnpike was under its constant construction, The Freedom Tower was emerging in downtown NYC skyline, and next to the bus stop on the West Side the Hudson Yards Project was going up. I felt like everywhere was a world of scaffolding, rebar, puddles, and piles. And it’s really beautiful. Of course it’s all intensely planned, budgeted, and zoned, but the effect of watching it happen is emergent and organic.
How does this project situate itself in relation to your other work, both personal and commissioned?
Most of the professional work I’ve been doing for the past few years has dealt with mapping narratives for my books Plotted: A Literary Atlas and Cinemaps: An Atlas of 35 Great Movies along with other various editorial illustration jobs, many of which were diagrammatic. It’s work I love, and mostly it’s built out of axonometric grids, and documenting information. The Unfinished Construction Sites were my chance to play with all the devices I was using without having to research and represent something that “was”. The drawings were a chance for pure exploration and play.
Did you ever think of exploring one or two of these images through time - engaging and exploring with a potential conceptual construction?
I haven’t had the chance yet but it’s been on my mind. I’ve been hoping to carve out some time to animate one of them germinating. I’m also a huge fan of Tom Gauld’s work and his book The Gigantic Robot which follows the construction of a giant robot and it’s gradual deconstruction over time, changing gradually from page to page.
What informed the choice of the axonometric an projection through which to explore these under construction spaces?
I always loved the oblique perspective of Japanese prints and Chinese painting and the movie maps I was creating really needed a device where things could be shown spatially, but without a real hierarchy or recession into space. The fixed angles also bring a feeling of implied intent that contrasts to the drawing’s free-form nature. You expect something perfect, and instead, you get something a little off kilter and playful. My mantra while painting the maps and the UCSs is “everything is as important as everything else”, and an isometric and axonometric approach let me do that.
To what extent does the built environment with which you engage with inform your work?
It depends. Sometimes they’re a reconstruction or deconstruction of actual architecture and in the beginning they were relatively direct. Sometimes it was just a little detail of structure or a glance at a site will that spawn a drawing. And sometimes it’s just a tube or rectilinear solids infiltrating the picture plane and you just see where it goes. One concrete thing I do use is thinking about remembered spaces: an atrium, or a closet, or a catherdal as a container of negative space. I then try to draw the negative space as positive space as the construction and see what happens. But, there is always a point when it becomes its own thing and leaves any reality to exist on its own as a drawing.
What defined the use of pen and paper? What is your take on contemporary digital tools?
Pen and paper (or brush, ink and paper) and restricting the work to black and white was really conscious. Working with black and white you either turn spaces on or shut them off – it’s about finding harmony in dichotomy. It requires you to think more like a printmaker. For the most part, we all begin with black and white and usually a stylus and ink, and then evolve to color. The Unfinished Construction Sites are really about going back to basics and trying to explore everything I could with black and white that I didn’t explore I wasn’t younger. It was also really important that the line was made by hand. Don’t get me wrong, I love photoshop. I love color. But the tools and variations can be almost overwhelming. The UCSs are an exercise in restraint of materials and still having an endless number of solutions for the picture plane. Simple shapes, simple black and white.
What role does the sketch hold in the development of a project?
Most of my illustration and painting work is deeply rooted in a long sketch process. Most of the time sketches I send to my clients end up functioning as the pencils for the finished assignments. The Unfinished Construction Sites were a move away from that process. They just grow on the page following the image I see in my head. Sometimes you’re really true to your remembered subject, but more often than not you start to drift and judge when “far” is “too far”. Mechanically I do start with a lightly penciled diamond grid, but that’s it. They’re really just live spatial sketches done with ink. The best thing you can do for a drawing is make a mistake and figure out how to work it in. The truth is you’re really unlikely to screw up unless you fail to recognize serendipity.
What is your take on the act of drawing?
I think most people mistake the act of drawing for the drawing itself. The act of drawing is the level of looking and the level of engagement you have with the picture plane. The drawing is just the notes you take based on the experience. Whether that picture plane is from an observed space, or whether you really looking at your own evolving drawing I don’t truly think it matters. If you’re really seeing something honestly and truthfully, you’ll make a good drawing.
What is your work process?
I generally like to have a few things going at once – an illustration job, a movie map, some gallery piece – that allows me to work each one at whatever stage best suits my mindset. They all usually begin the same way which is with research of some sort. Sometimes reading, sometimes visual collaging of reference materials, but whatever the case there’s a point when you have to start “sketching”. The most important part of sketching for me is turning off the lights, and laying down on the studio couch, and just thinking. I’m a little reticent to call it meditation, but it’s in the neighborhood. I like to let my brain try to wrap around the problem and see what the ol’ computer spits out. I used to write lists and brainstorm, but now I just relax and think. You keep concentrating on the problem and hopefully at some point in the darkness your subconscious start to drift in and the idea starts to spawn, or as sometimes happens it emerges fully formed and voila. And sometimes you just take a nice nap, which is also very refreshing.
What is your most important tool?
Education. I’ve been really privileged to spend some time around amazing teachers and friends who have taught me so much, the most important thing is that I have so much more to learn. I don’t think I’m very smart or creative when you get right down to it. I perhaps have more of a curiosity about the visual world, but that’s it. I’m really thankful for all the folks who taught me to love learning, reading, exploring, and playing. (Ok education and brushes. I love a good brush. A good brush is a surgeon’s scalpel and a sledgehammer in one tool. If you don’t draw with brushes, start. It’s fun.)