22 white frames of varying size and shape arranged on a white wall

The Empty Frames Project

THE IDEA OF HANGING EMPTY FRAMES on a gallery wall emerged from my work at events. Clients often suggest that it would be fun to arrange all the silhouettes on a wall and have people guess who they are. Doing this is easy enough (given an empty wall and a roll of sellotape). However, I quickly discovered that it looks far neater if you first stick empty cards to the wall and place the silhouettes directly into them.

I began to wonder if this could work as an art project. What would it look like in an art gallery?

I began to form the idea that I could take over a gallery and cover the walls with empty picture frames of varying size. Then, as visitors arrive, I would cut each of their silhouettes and stick them straight into the frames. Working in an art gallery setting might mean I need not limit myself to the pocket-size silhouettes I usually cut at event, but could experiment more freely with a range of sizes and styles of cutting.

But is it Art?

There are interesting artistic questions arising out of such a project.

Are visitors to the exhibition the audience or the subject? What does it mean to immediately put a visitor into the exhibition itself? Should the visitors be able to able to buy their own silhouettes, or would I prefer the keep the collection together as a single work, a snapshot of the moment?

These questions, and more, entered my thoughts, alongside many others about the practical arrangements needed to make the project work.

Open Studio, CAT 2013

For the last two years I’ve been opening my studio to the public as part of an exciting new project called the Caversham Arts Trail (CAT). I realised that this year’s event would be a good opportunity to trial this rather wacky arts project. I began to formulate a plan.

Project Aims

Before the project began I set out the following aims:

  1. To experiment with the idea of an empty-frames exhibition on a smaller scale and in the comfort of my own studio.
  2. To record the impressions of those taking part, in particular whether they understood what I was trying to achieve and whether or not they got something from the experience.
  3. To think more about what it means to turn the audience into the subject of an exhibition and to find a way to reward visitors to for their part in the show.

Collecting Old Frames

I began by collecting together a number of antique and modern frames which I no longer had a use for. I laid them all out on the floor and painted them white.

Unpainted and tatty picture frames
Old picture frames laid out on the studio floor

This seemed like a simple and low cost way to get the project off the ground. I then hung them on the end wall of my studio in a simple but artistic arrangement.

22 white frames of varying size and shape arranged on a white wall
Empty frames arranged on the wall of my studio

Paper and Scissors?

I gave a lot of thought about how to cut and attach the silhouettes to the frames. I quickly realised that my usual paper and scissors technique wouldn’t work as the frames would be open (no glass cover) leaving the silhouettes open to accidental damage.

For this event I opted to use black vinyl to cut the silhouettes. This would be easy to stick into the frames, relatively robust, and would leave a nice off cut to offer to each guest as a reward for taking part.

A Private View

Finally I invited a number of local and artistic friends to a private view of my open studio event, timed to take place just before the studio opened to the public.

Charles taking to two men in the studio
Guests arrive and I explain what I’m trying to achieve

As I expected, the first few to arrive were bemused by the site of a wall full of empty frames. They all knew my work and it seemed incongruous to them. I explained my plan and that despite appearances this was actually an exhibition of silhouettes. I then quickly began to cut the first silhouettes.

Charles cutting a silhouette
Cutting the first silhouette

As the evening went along the wall began to slowly fill up with silhouettes.

It was slower work that I expected. Working at a larger scale and in an unfamiliar medium took time. The vinyl was not as easy to handle as I thought, sometimes tearing as I removed the backing paper. I realised quite quickly that my plan to fill the whole wall during the private view was not going to work.

Cutting a silhouette of a nose as some silhouettes begin to appear on the wall behind

By the end of the evening about half the frames had been filled. To me, this was a good result. It meant that the rest of the wall coupled be filled with silhouettes of other visitors during the first day of the open studio.

They next day I filled all but two of the remaining frames. These I opted to leave empty in case anybody else arrived who really wanted to be included!

Wall of white frames, most of which contain a silhouette
The completed exhibition at the end of the first weekend

Did I achieve my aims?

After the event I took some time to reflect on how it all went, and on lessons learned if I ever apply it to a larger exhibition or other event.

The visitor experience

Silhouette of a woman with a white earring in an oval frame
The Flighty Lady silhouette

Visitors to the private view got the see the process of creation, but did not see the finished wall of silhouettes. Conversely, visitors who arrived on the second weekend got to see the complete wall of silhouettes, but had no idea how they had been made, or who the people were.

I hadn’t considered that the project would divide my audience in two this way. To me, the first group had the more creative experience, while the second group rather missed out. As ever, with silhouettes, the process seems to me more valuable that the finished product.

Unexpected Consequences

Woman in a white rectangular frame
Silhouette of a woman on the wall

Before the event I took the decision to ask people to title their own silhouettes. Rather than simply use their names I asked them to pick a word to two to describe themselves; either job description or something else more personal. These titles, written by hand onto cards underneath each silhouette, were more creative that I imagined, from The Flighty Lady to The Geek (aka The Nose). I really enjoyed this aspect of the event.

The Nose

The Geek (aka the Nose)

Another unexpected consequence was in the silhouettes themselves. It quickly became clear that these wanted to be more creative than my usual event silhouettes.

The example was The Geek, who wanted me to literally cut a silhouette of his nose sticking out from under the frame. Another was the young girl describing herself as The Scientist. She chose a suitable frame for her silhouette but then insisted I stick her outside the frame, since she liked to think outside the box (as all good scientists must, of course).

Full length silhouette of a girl stuck directly to the wall outside the frame
The Scientist (thinking outside the box)

Going Forward

learned a lot from this event, and would really like to take this project forward to an art gallery setting. It feels like a happening in the proper art sense of the word.

There are a number of things I would do differently next time:

  1. I would like to try standardising the frames, perhaps arranging them in a regular grid. Although the irregular frames I used were interesting, they felt like a distraction, more like a wall arrangement in a fashionable restaurant than a serious art project.
  2. I would prefer to cut the silhouettes with paper. Quite apart from environmental considerations I found vinyl difficult to work with, tearing more easily than paper (especially once the backing pair is removed).
  3. Working with paper will require glass over the frames. This means the frames will need to be hung in such a way that they can be taken down easily, perhaps by an assistant, and then rehung securely with the silhouettes inserted. Mirror plates and an electric drill would do the trick!
  4. There should be a video installation forming part of the final exhibition. This would record the initial period od silhouettes making in a film, which could then be palyed on a loop to give subsequent visitors to the gallery a better idea of what the silhouettes are all about.

I present this here as a kind of exhibition proposal. The search isn on for a gallery imaginative enough to accommodate my ideas for an exhibition of silhouettes!

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