Paul and Robert are talking with David Guinn, the mural painter, about the gigantic mouth. “I’m just going to bring the lips out a little more,” David says.
“I’m not sure if we should make the teeth an inch shorter,” Paul says. They stare at the wall in ICA’s downstairs gallery, where a transparency of a face is being projected. David is copying a cartoony picture of artist Jeremy Deller’s head around an arched doorway, which serves as the open mouth.
Visitors will walk through that mouth into the small room beyond to view Beyond the White Walls, a narrative slide show that is part of the major retrospective of Deller’s work, Jeremy Deller: Joy in People, opening at ICA on September 19.
“Do you think the nostrils really get that close to the lips?” Robert asks, as David marks their placement above the doorway with blue tape.
Paul pulls the projector back a few feet to see if it looks better. Everyone stares at the wall, dissatisfied.
Then David has an idea. “The nostrils could be half way,” he suggests, and—just like that—the problem resolves.
Jeremy Deller: Joy in People is an exuberant, unconventional, wide-ranging show. Deller, who won Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize in 2004, often makes work that involves people doing things: a massive re-enactment of 1984’s violent clash between striking coal miners and police (An Injury to One is an Injury to All); music fans making art inspired by their favorite band (The Uses of Literacy); and a Mancunian procession featuring a local cafe on a float, fish-and-chips enthusiasts, handmade banners (including a pro-smoking banner designed by David Hockney), and a Hindu bagpipe band (Procession). People are, literally, part of the show: for instance, a rotating sequence of melancholy teenagers will lounge on a couch under a mural—also painted by David Guinn—spelling out I ♥ Melancholy (the name of the piece) in shiny black letters on a matte black wall.
Black on black has its own challenges, maybe bigger ones than the relationship of mouth to nose on a cartoon face. When gloss paint doesn’t render the letters shiny enough, David tries varnishing them, being careful not to scuff the surrounding area. “Flat black is fickle,” he tells me. “It will look different if you touch it up with a brush than with a roller. It has to go on perfectly. To have it look mechanical but to do it by hand…” he trails off, checking the straightness of a letter with a level.
David, who also teaches at Moore College of Art and Design, is one of Philadelphia’s foremost mural painters. He is particularly known for his seasons series, including Crystal Snowscape at 10th and Bainbridge and Spring at 13th and Pine, and he recently completed an indoor mural for La Colombe’s Dilworth Plaza cafe about the craft and traditions of espresso. This summer David worked on a mural in North Philadelphia representing the dogs of neighborhood residents, spending the sweltering August days high on a ladder against a south-facing wall. He has recently launched Freewall, an outdoor space for temporary artist-centered murals. Working at ICA is a day job for him, but it’s a good day job. “It’s cool to work in this space,” he says. “The mural I just finished was totally different. Nothing needed to be precise. There’s a huge crack in the wall, and there’s nothing to do about it. Here, the wall is perfectly smooth. And if you have a question, you just ask.”
David also says that executing someone else’s work keeps him honest. Here he is, transferring a little eight-by-ten-inch color drawing onto a ten-foot wall of slightly different proportions, and next week Jeremy Deller will come by and see how it looks.
I ask David if he considers himself a muralist, or a painter who paints murals.
“I’m a painter,” he says. “I look at the murals as big paintings.”
I watch as he applies pinkish paint to the outlined mouth around the doorway, following the contour of the lip exactly. “What do you like about painting murals?”
“I like the impact: it’s so big. It’s powerful—you can’t deny it—when you see something that’s so much larger than the body.” He dips his brush again, then adds, “I like how it’s part of the world. People live with it.”
That sounds like an answer Jeremy Deller would appreciate.
Jeremy Deller: Joy in People is on view at ICA from September 19 – December 30, 2012.
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