HOUSTON — How is the museum like a prison? At the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), the curator Risa Puleo offers challenging answers to this sweeping question with the exhibition Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System.
For one, both institutions offer narratives of redemption. The museum, in its historical formulation, is a repository of cultural achievements that promises uplift and salvation through aesthetic experience. The prison also purports to correct and rehabilitate, to restore value, and redress harm.
A difference between the two is that the prison’s narrative of redemption is no longer convincing. Scholars and activists such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Michelle Alexander have provided compelling critiques of the prison-industrial complex, detailing how mass incarceration couples private financial interests with histories of racialized violence to perpetuate, rather than address, injustice. Walls Turned Sideways extends this analysis to implicate the museum in the same landscape of money and power as the prison.
The exhibition is multi-layered: at its base, it is a critical inspection of the mechanisms and processes of the American justice system. It is organized sequentially, considering in turn the dynamic of profiling and arrest, the juridical process, the experience of incarceration, and the three ways out of prison: execution by the state, a life sentence that guarantees death on the inside, or re-entry into society.
Walls Turned Sideways begins with hard data compiled by the artist Andrea Fraser that suggests the economic motivations of the art world aren’t unrelated from those that drive incarceration. “Index II” (2014) superimposes several similarly rising metrics onto a single chart: the number of museums in the US, the country’s prison population, the value of the art market, and an index of income inequality. Understanding the accumulation of wealth by the 1% (i.e. museum trustees) to be inextricable from increasing rates of incarceration for poverty-related crimes, Fraser’s graph begs the question: How can we still believe the museum’s narrative of redemption? How can art institutions claim to be stalwarts of social justice while fueling the uneven accumulation of wealth in a society that criminalizes poverty? And what role do artists and artworks play in all of this?
Next to Fraser’s chart, an “ICE Escape Sign” (2018) by Jenny Polak speaks directly to CAMH and its proximity to borderlands. Appropriating the visual forms of state-mandated fire escape signs, Polak populates CAMH’s rhombus plan with several figures in flight towards an inconspicuous back door that offers a quick escape in the event of a raid by immigration authorities. (The gesture might feel hollow if CAMH didn’t offer free admission or bilingual didactics.) Centering one of America’s most vulnerable communities, Polak relates the ever-present threat of incarceration to the level of calamity, speaking also to the exceptional actions that states of emergencies demand.
The exhibition sustains a critical awareness of the site of the museum and the dynamics of representation and display inherent to it. A drawing by Shaun Leonardo titled “Rodney King” (2017) reproduces a still from the 1991 video of King’s beating, the image made doubly grainy in its transcription from video to charcoal. Leonardo found that this image was most often reproduced in a cropped version, showing two officers with batons hovering over King. But the full, un-cropped still is even more indicting, showing seven additional officers who stood by watching.
In his version of the image, Leonardo has cut out King’s huddled body, leaving a conspicuous absence. The act relieves King of the burden of representation, creating some space for him to exist as something beyond a sign of anti-black police violence. The frame itself is slightly tinted, bringing other works in the gallery into the image through their reflection. Trophies by Carl Pope, Jr. and an oversize LAPD uniform by Chris Burden — both made in the aftermath of King’s beating — loom as specters of violence among the nine cops in Leonardo’s drawing. Also visible in the frame’s reflection is the viewer, implicated as yet another spectator consuming this act of violence.
One year after riots rocked Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial, the complete 10-minute videotape of King’s beating was exhibited in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, heralding the increasingly accessible medium of video as a powerful catalyst and a means of testimony. Today, however, a numbingly vast amount of video documenting police violence is circulated online with seemingly little ability to enact justice or testify in the face of power. In the introduction to her catalog, Puleo emphasizes this by distinguishing between what she calls the “evidentiary function of representation” and the bald exhibition of violence—what artist Parker Bright famously termed “black death spectacle” in response to Dana Schutz’s work in the 2017 Biennial. What does it mean to be a spectator to violence? What does it mean to present it in a museum?
Walls Turned Sideways is not content to assume that art is intrinsically redemptive or that visibility always leads to justice. The exhibition’s guiding question — what can only artists do? — is answered neither by testimony or spectacle. The exhibition contains few images of bodies or prisoners, foregrounding other methods of visualizing the injustice of mass incarceration. With “DLP” (2018), Mark Menjivar offers an alternative portrait of David Lee Powell, who spent 32 years on death row before being executed in 2010. The contents of Powell’s cell are displayed in 17 storage boxes and in an accompanying index, a personal archive that speaks to both the constraints of confinement and Powell’s varied intellectual interests, with entries ranging from The Little Book of Restorative Justice to Geodesic Math and How To Use It and Patti Smith’s Just Kids.
Walls Turned Sideways may at first seem inconsistent in its simultaneous critique and inhabitation of the museum. But one of its strengths is that it doesn’t oblige artists to museological display — Puleo’s project swells beyond the confines of the museum.
Some of the most impressive work takes the form of long-term community-based projects that are not oriented towards visual display or even museum-going audiences. The catalog assumes an essential role in documenting and considering these types of projects, such as Tamms Year Ten, which successfully lobbied for the closure of a super-max prison in Illinois, or Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, which won reparations and a public memorial for survivors of police torture and abuse. Ongoing projects are highlighted as well, such as the People’s Paper Co-op in North Philadelphia, an organization that works with people to expunge their criminal records, which are then shredded and transformed into handmade paper used for creative projects.
In opting to locate its consideration of social practice in its catalog and outside of the gallery, Walls Turned Sideways runs the risk of withholding its most powerful moments from museum-goers. But in doing so, the project remains true to its eponymous assertion. Taking seriously Angela Davis’s suggestion that “walls turned sideways are bridges,” it locates justice outside of the gallery walls, troubling the assumption that the museum can be a site of redemption.
Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System continues at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (5216 Montrose Boulevard, Houston) through January 6. The exhibition was curated by Risa Puleo.