One of the two hands thrust through the bars clutches a pencil, and the wrist sports the bracelet of a handcuff, putting to rest any question that these bars are anything other than those of a prison cell. The face and the body of the person are not visible, but the hands drawn in graphite are slender, expressive, and refined — as emotional as the rendering of any face might be. In the small, untitled work, an artist referred to as Yeniel H. has proffered a drawing that is an apt metaphor for the exhibition it opens. On the Inside, currently on view at the Abrons Art Center, is comprised of works of art made by LGBTQ prisoners incarcerated throughout the United States.
On the Inside is the culmination of a multi-year effort by curator Tatiana von Furstenburg. In 2013, she placed an advertisement requesting works of art in Black and Pink, a publication that caters to America’s LGBTQ prison population. In this subgroup of the country’s total convicted population, inmates have a statistically higher likelihood of experiencing abuse, mental health issues, and denial of services while in prison, making them exceptionally vulnerable. Von Furstenburg ultimately received more than 4,000 submissions from prisoners in all 50 states, and from this avalanche of work she culled the present show, which includes about 400 individual pieces. She hopes her efforts will facilitate connection with the outside world for an already isolated population, and foster more empathy in general for the incarcerated. To that end, viewers are invited to communicate with the artists on view through a specially calibrated text messaging system, whereby messages sent to individual artists at a designated number will be printed out on paper and delivered to them. The framework provides anonymity to the sender while allowing artists to receive direct feedback and commentary on their work, especially significant since most participants will not be able to see their efforts on display.
“I didn’t want it to be an anthropological show,” von Furstenburg tells me, as we pass together by densely hung walls. “First and foremost, all of these artists self-identify as artists. I really wanted to honor that.” Nearly all the works are drawings, most done in pencil, ballpoint pen, or some combination of the two, on a standard-size paper that is also almost universal across the exhibition. The reason is simple: These are usually the only materials available to an imprisoned artist. The backdrop walls on which the framed works hang are murals created by enlarging individual characters from certain of the artworks. Rather than traditional wall text, von Furstenburg has highlighted quotes from prisoners’ letters that accompanied the submissions, another way of allowing the viewer to hear these otherwise sequestered voices. Her means of selection, rather than conceptual, was instead straightforward. “For the purposes of what I wanted to accomplish politically, I needed to be very clear about the actual skill set, and the authority of each piece I chose.”
With such a large roster of artists, the show is organized into loose subcategories, which proved to be an organic process. Certain trends among the works emerged naturally. “I didn’t actually come up with the groups,” notes von Furstenburg. “They came up with themselves.” Among these groupings are a wall depicting celebrity personalities, another showing religious iconography. In a small, enclosed cube at the center of the gallery, visitors may enter to see a selection of sexually explicit drawings. Text on the outside of the cube notes that the room has been built to the specifications of a solitary confinement cell — a detail that casts a chilling pall on the most primal and basic means of human connection represented within.
Throughout the show, portraits abound, which is perhaps not surprising for a project that so directly underscores identity. Though artists are referred to only by their first name (or a nickname) and the first initial of their last name, personalities shine through in the wall of self-portraits. In “Invisible” by artist M.A.G.E.-X, a female-identifying person sits with an arm wrapped around one knee and gazes over her shoulder. The eyes are drawn large and wide with thick lashes but only a wispy suggestion of irises. Yet the artist has rendered them expressively. These eyes are watchful and guarded, gazing off the page in a manner that is in direct contrast to the background the subject sits before, which has been shaded in by the artist in cheerful, candy-colored pink, yellow, and blue pencil. This drawing, like many in the show, is guileless, but because of that, all of the artist’s emotion is on plain display — there is no façade here. Viewers who spend time with the works may find themselves connecting with any number of individual prisoners who have laid themselves bare in these drawings. As another of the artists, Tony B., says of their work by way of a quotation on the wall, “Despite all the teasing and torment a transgender copes with everyday [sic], when the moment was right to draw this portrait the beauty of simply being a human being came out.”
In this politically polarized moment, when the notion of compassion itself seems to be on trial, exhibitions like On the Inside have become ever more urgent. A show featuring the work of such a marginalized community could go a long way toward nurturing understanding of the difficulties often faced by imprisoned LGBTQ people, as well as our nation’s incarcerated citizens more broadly. But the art world first needs to broaden its vision of what it deems worthy of display. Von Furstenburg mentions that she approached several more traditional venues in New York with no success before finding a place for the exhibition at the Abrons Center, which is affiliated with the Henry Street Settlement, a nonprofit social-services organization that has existed in the Lower East Side since the 19th century. She wishes for the exhibition to travel to other exhibition spaces throughout the country, but so far that plan has not materialized. Still, von Furstenburg remains hopeful that the messages conveyed by On the Inside will somehow eventually have the opportunity to reach people outside of New York. “Prisoners have been so deliberately disconnected from the world. We’ve been taught to feel safer because certain people are behind bars, but the whole system is so skewed,” she says. Still, “I really have a lot of faith in our busting through of delusion.”
On the Inside continues at Abrons Art Center (466 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 28.