Disjecta, Portland, OR
by Richard Speer
Since 1981, Peter Halley has deployed a visual vocabulary of squares, rectangles, and thick, connective lines to critique and diagram the influences of geometry and technology on contemporary life. He often paints prison bars inside his shapes, conflating geometry with confinement in a nod to French theorist Michel Foucault’s seminal Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
In the installation Prison at the Portland, Oregon nonprofit Disjecta, Halley further clarified his conception of the prison as dual metaphor for anatomical and architectural space as they relate to the social. Beneath a vaulting, 26-foot-high ceiling, the artist installed a seemingly continuous sheet of digital prints, which unfurled along three walls. Twelve feet high and 175 feet long, the work, which the artist wryly described as “wallpaper,” depicted permutations of his iconic prison imagery, rendered in lime green and magenta. Two additional walls were painted DayGlo yellow. Green and yellow theater gels cast a preternaturally uniform curtain of eerie chartreuse light across the walls, as if the prints were glowing in the dark or emitting nuclear radiation. This sickly coloration lent a sense of foreboding commensurate to Halley’s fascination with Foucault’s paranoia-inducing panopticon.
Indeed, the hundreds of repeated squares and rectangles, ghoulishly stacked on one another like body lockers in a morgue, corroborated the artist’s thesis that his ubiquitous penal imagery, in scale, is analogous both to the human body and to architectural structures. “For the most part,” he told author Karlyn De Jongh in a 2009 interview, “I try to make paintings in which you can imagine a human being fitting inside the cell or prison.” Viewers familiar with Halley only through his essays—which relate his compositions to apartment buildings and utility/communications lines—may not have realized until encountering this installation that the artist’s iconography is as viscerally anthropometric as it is analytical. Prison underlines this point with ruthless elegance. The prison, Halley seems to imply, is not only a building that holds us in, but also a stand-in for the individual self, from which there is only one escape.
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