Art & Krimes by Krimes (2022), a documentary that follows the life and career of artist Jesse Krimes — who served six years in federal prison and worked assiduously on his art while incarcerated with the bare-bones materials at his disposal — will begin streaming on Paramount+ starting November 29.
Krimes, together with fellow Philadelphia-based artist Russell Craig, founded the Right of Return fellowship in 2017, the first initiative in the United States providing mentorship and financial support to formerly incarcerated artists. Since his own release, Krimes has enjoyed exposure and success as an artist, including gallery representation, a fellowship from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and inclusion in Nicole Fleetwood’s landmark Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration show at MoMA PS1 in 2020.
But although he has been able to use his “privilege,” “education,” and “networks to build something that is sustainable,” Krimes says in the documentary, he feels dissatisfied that this hasn’t been true for everybody — including fellow incarcerated artists he met while in prison who’ve faced more difficulty in having their art be taken seriously upon release.
Each year, Right of Return puts out an open call for artists working across disciplines, with six fellows granted $20,000 in support of projects that portray the humanity of criminalized individuals and advocate for change in the justice system. “I still have a ton of friends who are in there,” Krimes relates. “Maybe one day I’ll slow down and relax, but right now it’s just nonstop.”
The new documentary, directed by Alysa Nahmias and released in theaters on September 30, recounts Krimes’s early life and the events that contributed to his sentence. In adolescence, Krimes lost his stepfather, whom he was very close with, to a drug-related suicide. “It was no secret that I was a trainwreck,” he says. Through that difficult time, he drank, partied, sold weed and cocaine, and was soon arrested and sentenced.
While in prison, he dedicated himself to his art — sometimes spending “12 hours a day, 7 days a week” on it — and read philosophical texts like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. He copied some of the figures from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in his own artwork.
During his incarceration, he developed some of his signature techniques, such as transferring newsprint to materials like bedsheets and soap, while honing his skills in figural hand-drawing. He also completed the monumental “Apokaluptein:16389067” (2010–3), a work that stitched together 39 prison-issue sheets to produce an apocalyptic landscape with Boschian scope and detail.
Krimes is focused not only on propelling his own career forward, but bringing others along with him.
“The thing that’s frustrating to me is that people who have been in prison, who are super exceptionally talented artists, are not getting projects, not getting platforms, in the top-tier contemporary art sphere,” Krimes says in the film. “One in three people has a criminal record, and so that’s a clear signal to me that there’s a whole pool of wasted talent — not just in the prison system but people who have since come home.”
A trailer for Art & Krimes by Krimes can be viewed here.