Architecture School 'un-Painting' Project Is a Lesson in Public Art

October 05, 2011

When University of Virginia architecture professor Sanda Iliescu heard that a bright yellow wall in the east wing of the School of Architecture that is used as an exhibition space was going to be painted white, she knew it was the perfect opportunity for students in her "Painting and Public Art" course to put into practice what they were studying.

The premise of the public art project, dubbed "un-Painting," was to create a two-week artistic intervention that would ultimately change the wall from yellow to white.

Working in the tradition of the late conceptual and minimalist artist Sol Lewitt – who created a series of rules for others to follow in creating wall drawings, with each iteration producing varying results ¬– Iliescu developed a set of rules to be followed and required the students to work collaboratively. The students were also invited to add their own interventions, based on rules they developed.

"The students learn about an artist's work not only through reading, but also by transforming and pushing the artist's process and ideas," Iliescu said.

The students found that the exercise also embraced principles used in architectural design.

Polly Smith, an architecture graduate student with a bachelor's degree in studio art and art history, said the project provided a good link and foundation between the two fields. "The project involves the same principles and ideas. It's a middle ground."

Parker Sutton, an architecture graduate student, connected public art and architecture. "Public art deals with civic engagement and the collective imagination through space-making. It's site-specific, process-oriented and responds to the phenomenal qualities of light and sound," he said. "Much the same can be said of architecture."

Architecture graduate student Maria Arellano, one of the two teaching assistants for the course and a student in a related research seminar with Iliescu, said Lewitt's process mirrors an architect's approach to design: "Set up a set of rules and follow them."

Following Iliescu's rules, students divided the wall into 12 equal vertical sections and placed within them bold blue strips of tape, representing each of their heights. Each student had four stripes and placed them up and down and tilted right and left within the vertical sections using chance or random number theory to achieve a pattern.

Not only did rules play a part in the conception, but randomness added an element of unpredictability, mystery and magic, Arellano said.

"The exercise is about thinking about art as an idea," Iliescu said.

Fourth-year architecture major and art minor Sarah Kohlhepp said, "The class is different than any other art class at U.Va. Architecture is an interdisciplinary field anyway, so being able to take the class is really unique."

Students also added their own interventions.
One group stenciled the names of the artists next to their corresponding blue bars.
Another duo, fourth-year architecture students Aneesha Baharani and Derin Ozier, grounded the taped lines by continuing them with pale blue paint and contrasting that addition with a subtle "sky" addition of small yellow dots of tape. The dots were placed near the bars and stenciled names. The number of dots correlated with the number of letters in a person's name.

"The experience has opened my eyes to how you really have to let go of any preconceived ideas you had about the project as it unfolds," Baharani said. "Since you don't know what other people are going to add to the project, you really have no idea how your part is going to play out."

Another group responded to the work on the yellow wall by creating a companion piece on a facing white wall. "We saw it as an echo to the yellow wall, a more delicate aleatoric or chance composition," architecture and urban planning graduate student Whitney Newton said.

For Newton, who also took another course with Iliescu as an undergraduate engineering student, the current course has a personal component. "It is acting as a gauge, both in my ability to explore ways of working and representing, but also helping me see the progression of many concepts and ideas that have seemed to stay with me over the last couple of years," she said.

The last few days began the process of fading the wall to white. Architecture graduate student Brianna Doak, who has worked on the creation of almost 20 Lewitt drawings through the Sol Lewitt Foundation, taught the class about the process and materials he used. She prepared the house paint and water mixture to "un-paint" the wall. They applied the transparent glazes or layers by wiping or dabbing with paint-soaked rags.

Throughout the project, second-year engineering student Kevin McVey, who is also taking Iliescu's research seminar, collected sounds of the class working and composed a computer music piece to expand his exploration of how experimental art and music could relate.

"I'm fascinated by the links between art and music, but especially those that include links to computer science and mathematics," McVey said. "Once I learned about the algorithmic nature of un-painting and the theory of aleatoric art in general, the music just seemed to write itself."

Drawings showing the process of exploration the students engaged in for this project and a drawing project from earlier in the semester, plus a slideshow of the process and McVey's music, are on exhibit in the Architecture's School's Elmaleh Gallery through Oct. 15.

— By Jane Ford

Media Contact

Jane Ford

Senior News Officer U.Va. Media Relations