Frames in Time

What always intrigues me about architects is how they put their thoughts into three-dimensional form. By adding function to form, you get a sequence of time/space modules. John di Domenico sees the world around him in terms of observable sequences. He calls his drawings “frames in time.” For di Domenico, a single image is not enough to communicate the structure of what is happening around him. His art requires a sequence of images, a modular encapsulation of visual notations that narrate the situation and articulate the space in which the narration occurs.

di Domenico begins with a black ink pen on paper. Eventually, after completing several sketches, using his cartoon-like style, he will select one to blow-up. He then adds color. This is done with either watercolor or pastel. More often pastel is used, because it is easier to control. Pastel holds the color more precisely inside the linear contours of the drawing. He enlarges the drawing again, making corrections and revisions, until he finally arrives at the point of completion. For di Domenico, these “frames in time” are both studies and reflections. They are visual notations and works of art in themselves.

His drawings are, indeed, records of his thought — ideographic records or “idea-pictures.” They are expressions of the world around him. They include buildings or places that he has either designed or constructed. He makes his subject matter clear. He does not try to conceal, but to generate an arbitrary sense of being in the sequential space of the frames. There is nothing contrived or disconcerting about these visual narratives, nothing cynical. They are about the communication of ideas, sparkling anecdotes that glimmer in the light of his everyday consciousness.

I have always felt that architecture was structurally closer to the medium of film than to the medium of video. But this depends largely on what kind of architecture is represented. The connections between the architecture and film presuppose a certain rhythmical flow within a modular sequence. As di Domenico describes his drawings, they “are organized along an orthogonal grid, though not necessarily in chronological order as ‘events.’ Indeed, they allow for events to be compressed in time; they are reorganized and ‘composed’ in a personal storyline.”

di Domenico’s images carry a certain aura of film, a cinematic flicker. In the two versions of Atlantic I and II (both 1998), one gets the sense of a film — what Eisenstein once called “the film sense,” referring to how a film is constructed in such a way as to give the viewer more information than is actually there. In addition to its “film sense,” Atlantic I might read as a cubist cartoon , a kind of static film, like examining a strip of celluloid. Moving from the upper left to the lower right (as we tend to read pictures in a grid), Atlantic I begins with an architectural exterior, a detail of a recent subway project by di Domenico. The second frame is a large male head (a cubist puzzle representing the kind of multiracial mix likely to be seen near the train station).

From the frontal head, we move to the third frame, an interior stairway, then to frames four -seven where we see more details of exterior views. Finally, we move to the eighth frame, a large profile of a woman’s head against a window, and then to the ninth frame that reveals an exterior view of the building.

Atlantic II is different from Atlantic I in both in context and in meaning. The colors are brighter, more playful, more open-ended in their construction. The quality of the frames is more pictorial and formal in composition. The rhythms of red-peaked rooftops bounce along the inverted sections of blue sky. The abstract heads in the foreground are both frontal and in profile, always close-up. Atlantic II is one of di Domenico’s most complex and beautifully resolved drawings.

In works, such as Matawan and Atlantic III (both 1998), another kind of composition is suggested. Instead of discrete frames being read from the perspective of a sequence, Matawan and Atlantic III can be read all at once in a single glance. Although each drawing is different in color tonality and intensity, the shapes and colors of these architectural constructs are so interrelated as to create the sense of a single composition. Put another way, the parts read as a unified whole, a composition that is felt more than analyzed. This is also true of the remarkably composed White Plains 10 (2001) where the darker tonalities of the red and orange details of the station read distinctly in relation to the blue sky as the numerical signs pull the sequence into a single ensemble.

When I asked John di Domenico for some references in order to grasp more clearly his ideas, I was both amazed and delighted to receive a series of reproductions of paintings. In fact, all of the painters are known for their architectonic mode of constructing a picture — from Caravaggio to Fernand Leger, from the Precisionist Charles Sheeler to the colorist Stuart Davis. The American Regionalist painter Edward Hopper also plays an influential role as do the large-scale paintings of Keith Haring. For di Domenico, it is all a matter of putting the parts together, or thinking of parts in relation to the whole. He is less concerned with creating a resemblance than articulating a structure of visual thought. At the same time, his vocabulary is playful, witty, and expressive.

What continues to intrigue me about di Domenico is the inherent pleasure that inhabits these “frames in time.” There is an intimacy about the work that I find both original and significant, particularly within these high-pressure days as we learn to acculturate our physical selves to the speed of information exchange. di Domenico’s drawings offer a kind of grace, a respite that lies outset the mayhem of information overload. His vision is a private distillation of a world that is sane and ordered amid the contrariness and confusion that we have come to interpret as our external reality.

 Robert C. Morgan