When I start a piece of work I often begin by building a grid-like structure that eventually will hold the construction together. The end piece will be wild and obsessive and bear no relation to the grid – but its there all the same! The grid gives me something to work with, a starting point and reference. It’s like the steady beat of the music while the tunes weave around it.
One of my other great passions is dancing – I love jazz, soul, funk and house music. In this respect I feel I’m following in the footsteps of one of the greatest grid painters of the last century, Mondrian. He loved dancing to the syncopated jazz music of the early twentieth century, and he was fascinated by modern culture, in particular black American music. His early works were black grids with blocks of primary colours – at the end of his life when he was living in New York they became more complex and resembled the grid of that city’s streets.
One of the few female artists who gained recognition in the male-dominated art world of the 1950s and ’60s was Agnes Martin. In the late fifties she began making intricate, tranquil grid paintings. Her work was a bridge between Abstract expressionism and Minimalism where a new breed of young male artists were influenced by her to produce repetitive geometric compositions.
One of them, Sol Le Wit was considered the godfather of minimal and conceptual art. The cube influenced him from the beginning of his career and he made modular grid like structures from fabricated materials like aluminium. Carl Andre also used grids in much of his work and his infamous bricks form a grid.
One of my favourite contemporary artists is Leonardo Drew. One of his most exciting pieces, Number 43 is a network of closely packed boxes stuffed with rust and rags and other detritus. It’s tight and claustrophobic. He made the piece after visiting the dungeons at an African slave trading post that were used to imprison people before they were shipped to America as slaves.
In my work I frequently refer to the architectural layering of buildings and cities, its interesting how our cities have an interplay between the haphazard and the structured.
In ancient Greece the grid became the model for social order and rationality. Hippodamus designed Miletus – the first city built on a grid. He completely rebuilt Athens (Piraes) along a grid of symmetrical streets intersecting one another. The fact that poor people were located outside of the city, away from the major buildings and the wealthy, strikes a chord today – we are living in a time of regeneration which has led to a similar social cleansing!
In Roman towns the grid was based on warfare and military camps, there were two main streets set at right angles to each other with the Forum, Basilica and law courts at their intersection. In time the grid was imposed on vanquished Europe by the Roman conquerers.
In the same way that people were drawn to National Socialism in a chaotic and depressed Germany, there is something enticing about order and the idea of living within a grid. But like Nazi Germany it’s a dangerous solution.
To point out these flaws, Superstudio, a radical architectural group working in Florence in the late sixties invented ‘The continuous Monument: an architectural model for total urbanisation. The project was a critique of modernism which by that time had stagnated. They presented a sequence of photo montages showing a gridded superstructure intended to wrap around the earth – globalisation was swamping the world so human beings may as well live in a bland suburban structure that had no differences or cultures.
This project reveals the insidious nature of grids, how capitalist society is a tight structure that keeps us in our place, economically and socially. An artificial grid which is a social containment that keeps power within a small group of people. Trying to opt out of this structure is referred to as ‘living off grid’ suggesting subversion, rebellion and no electricity!
We need to be suspicious of grids and conformity, maybe it’s circumspect to use its best element – structure – and then go wild and free around it!