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Of the many unforgettable works in Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Larry Cook’s The Visiting Room (2019) undeniably elucidates the significance of the carceral gaze. Cook’s figures, dressed in their finest, have been staged to face away from the camera, their backs to viewers. Within many prisons, the visiting room is a rare space where incarcerated individuals are permitted supervised time with their families. Family portraits are often encouraged in front of a simulated backdrop — an ocean view, or a car flanked by moonlight — adding another layer of fabrication to such instances of quality time. With this series, Cook disturbs the surveilled construction of family time within penal space by asking his sitters to turn their backs, creating a vehicle for measured refusal.
As lead curator of the exhibition and author of the eponymous accompanying text, Nicole Fleetwood has dedicated her career to constructing a vocabulary for art that is created within prisons and other carceral settings. She defines “carceral aesthetics” as a visual language situated within circumstances of captivity, where freedom and unfreedom are not to be compared. Her terms — penal time, penal space, penal matter — are used to frame and assess the materials and processes specific to carceral conditions. Marking Time, the exhibition, displays work by 35 artists “who are or have been incarcerated” and artists “who have not but exposed aspects” of the carceral state, a category which includes teaching artists, documentary photographers, children of the incarcerated, as well as correspondence between educators and incarcerated artists.
Originally slated to open at MoMA PS1 this past spring, Marking Time was postponed due to the global spread of COVID-19. The pandemic underscored numerous disparities impacting Black and brown communities, specifically their disproportionate rates of incarceration. As of October 15, 147,000 cases of COVID 19 have been reported in US prisons, and 1,246 people have died. In a highly contentious decision, several states granted early release to prisoners across the country, an attempt to manage the spread of the virus. While visitors to Marking Time may range from prison abolitionists to casual museum goers, the exhibition invites audiences to bear witness to the boundless capacity of imagination amid state control.
Beyond the breadth of skill and material experimentation, a crucial theme of the exhibition is a collective commitment to psychological preservation. Jessie Krimes formed an arts collective with fellow artists Jared Owens and Gilberto Rivera at the Fairton Federal Correctional Institution in New Jersey. Together, they taught classes and introduced their “carceral peers” to the work of Francis Bacon, Caravaggio, Jackson Pollock, and others.
Similarly, James “Yaya” Hough became known for mentoring several artists, notably Russell Craig, during his twenty seven years in prison. Fleetwood centers their creative authority by describing this mentoring relationship as a “tradition of incarcerated artists,” an important distinction aimed at setting their efforts apart from punitive notions of criminality. Craig’s large scale paintings, “Self Portrait II” (2019-2020) and Portrait of “Rodney Spivey-Jones” (2019-2020), made of cow’s blood, pages of art history books, and the Bard College reader, are featured alongside a wall of Hough’s prolific sketches, “Series of untitled drawings” (2008-2015), a gesture towards the significance of mentorship in the prison system.
Some of these moments of camaraderie are recorded by documentary photographers, who likewise capture unmistakable horrors. Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun have been documenting the Louisiana State Penitentiary (most commonly known as Angola) since the 1980s. Calhoun’s “Man Plaiting Hair” (1982), is a black and white photograph of a man getting his hair braided by one of his peers. There is a tenderness to this image of two shirtless men, and it is featured alongside others of incarcerated people engaged in perpetual field labor. (Located on a former plantation, Angola is known for grueling work conditions and preventable deaths from low-risk illnesses.)
With her series Life Inside, Sara Bennett, an attorney who switched careers to become a documentary photographer, depicts women who are serving life sentences. Bennett’s photographs are reverential archives; her subjects are often older, positioned between walls covered in family photographs and mementos. “Looking Inside: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences, Linda A” (2019), presents Linda, a woman who describes her routine of putting on make-up every single day, as a ritual for coping.
On the afternoon of my visit, I paused to study nearly every piece of art. I found myself rapt in the complex galaxy of artists spanning the galleries. Immediately after viewing the show in its entirety, I returned to its first gallery, featuring “Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration” (ongoing) by Mark Loughney. The portraits, rendered in soft pencil sketches, enclosed the space in profiles of mostly Black and brown masculine faces. Loughney creates his drawings in timed 20 minute sessions on whatever type of paper available to him. In recent months, several more have been added, portraying individuals wearing masks, due to the ongoing pandemic.
In her groundbreaking text, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Black feminist scholar and educator bell hooks suggests, “marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation […] it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance.” In a year of perpetual change, Marking Time demonstrates the urgent need for a shift in culture, one where crisis need not be the charge for moving towards a better world.
Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration continues through April 4, 2021 at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens). The exhibition is curated by Nicole R. Fleetwood, with Amy Rosenblum-Martín, Jocelyn Miller, and Josephine Graf.