The Parking Garage as Muse

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Mark Shetabi is a Philadelphia-based artist whose work has been featured in dozens of solo and group exhibitions. Early in his career, he developed an interest in depicting seemingly mundane objects in ways that reveal underlying meanings and evoke sometimes surprising emotional responses. This interest led to a series of works based on parking garages. His sculpture Endless Column (2007), which evokes the spiral parking ramps at the base of the Marina City towers in Chicago, appears in the exhibition House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage, as does his painting Garage Interior 1 (2006). In this interview, Shetabi talks about his fascination with parking garages and their influence on his art.

The Rapture, by Mark Shetabi; oil on linen, 2001. Courtesy the artist. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this image in digital or print form is strictly prohibited.

National Building Museum (NBM) Online: What role does architecture play in your work?

Mark Shetabi: In my recent painting and sculpture, I have used architectural forms, both real and imagined, as a departure point to examine ideas having to do with public and private space. Most of my work begins from an investigation of the forms that constitute the visual “white noise” of my everyday life and memories. Within this vocabulary of the boring and the ordinary, I am able to transform background forms and sensations into foreground issues. Finding the proper distance from which to observe seems a crucial issue.

NBM Online: How did your specific interest in parking garages emerge?

Shetabi: About 10 years ago, I was painting objects that were “invisible”—things like cars, watercoolers, planes, highways, trucks, photocopiers—that are so common as to almost be invisible. I started to notice parking garages. They’re everywhere. I started collecting pictures. Friends would take pictures and send them to me. I eventually amassed a real pile of images.

I Can See for Miles, by Mark Shetabi; oil on linen, 2007. Courtesy the artist and Jeff Bailey Gallery, New York, NY.All rights reserved. Reproduction of this image in digital or print form is strictly prohibited.

NBM Online: You have previously done installations involving spaces visible only through peepholes, thus isolating the viewer from the scene being viewed. How has that series informed your work related to parking garages?

Shetabi: In my sculpture and installation work, I have used security peephole lenses as a means to investigate the boundaries between dichotomies that interest me: stasis/flux, inside/outside, public space/private space. I am interested in the tension between the simultaneous intimacy and distance that a lens affords.

All the work grew out of an interest in examining the shape of a society. Obviously, architecture is going to have a huge influence in this regard. The peephole installations are part of a body of work that attempts to create a total environment, and connects the various layers of imagery.

Small High Ground, by Mark Shetabi; oil on panel, 2005. Courtesy the artist and Jeff Bailey Gallery, New York, NY. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this image in digital or print form is strictly prohibited.

NBM Online: Your work reveals a certain fascination with garages as sculptural or geometrical objects in their own right, but your interest in them is clearly broader than that.

Shetabi: With architecture, forms stick around long after the ideology which inspired their design has changed or become obsolete. It is therefore possible to see the form and its ideology from a proper distance. Buildings become remnants of various utopian or prosaic ideas of city planning (Corbusier’s “machines for living,” Cabrini-Green, and so on) and we are now living in that future, which is very different from how the artists/architects envisioned it.

I’m also interested in the spiral form as a kind of ladder or pathway. Carl Jung uses architecture (his childhood home) as a metaphor for a way to delve into the deeper self. I’d been painting various imagined and real parking spirals for years. The passage of light through the space was a focus of the work.

Small model (foreground) and large model (background), both by Mark Shetabi, as seen in the installation “ELEVATION” at the Tower Gallery in Philadelphia, 2007. Courtesy the artist and Jeff Bailey Gallery, New York, NY.

NBM Online: What other factors have influenced your parking garage-themed work?

Shetabi: My brother saw my work and sent me a video game called Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. He told me to go to a certain sector of the game’s virtual city to see a garage. Finding the garage felt like an epiphany. Here was an interactive model of a garage very similar to one I had been obsessing on for years. I would constantly go to this virtual garage and explore it. I didn’t play the game anymore, which had a very idiotic storyline lifted from Miami Vice, but rather hung out at the garage. I learned there was a helicopter to be had, so played enough to get the helicopter, then used it to survey the garage. I felt a bit like the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind: “This is important! This means something!”

All this finally culminated in a suite of 10 paintings and a 34 foot x 12 foot x 8 foot sculpture based on this garage. The sculpture was built using 120 hollow-core door panel slabs cut in various configurations, in addition to other materials such as polystyrene, marble dust, concrete, balsa wood, acrylic paint, and modeling paste. I showed this body of work in Philadelphia at Tower Gallery in fall 2007, and then the work traveled to New York City for the PULSE Art Fair Special Projects in 2008.

An important goal was attaining an elevated position from which to survey and hopefully make sense of things—a Brueghelian God’s-eye/surveillance camera view. Many of the pieces have titles such as “High Ground” and “I Can See For Miles.” A sturdy Ivory Tower from which to survey.

Since making this body of work, I have not played Grand Theft Auto anymore, nor painted too many more parking garages. I guess I got it out of my system.

NBM Online: In addition to your work related to parking garages and your peephole projects, you have done pieces ranging from a still life of a colander to a portrait of Freddie Mercury. Are there philosophical or emotional threads that unite your work?

Shetabi: A lot of the forms I am drawn to have a kind of transitory existence. One passes by and through them without stopping. Their function renders them invisible. At the same time, they subtly influence our movement.

There is usually a personal or autobiographical component to the things I paint, such as the colander, cars and vans, or rooms. I guess I’m interested in the way in which such commonplace things and spaces can have personal associations. The homes I occupied as a child in Iran were the same kinds of basic bad International Style knockoffs that sprouted worldwide in the 1960s and ’70s. Architecture everywhere has a kind of anonymous quality that reflects the prosaic issues of cheap construction. But it is still inevitable that one will form emotional and psychological relationships with the spaces and objects that one is surrounded with. Ultimately, I think it has to do with making the invisible, visible.