“Love is like a ghost that many people talk about, but few have actually seen” — or something like that. I read this adage in a list of quotable quotes many years ago and have held on to it because it sounds like profound truth. Thinking of this, I initially greeted the exhibition No Justice Without Love at the Ford Foundation with a bit of skepticism, especially because it seems that every other show or artwork has “love” in the title these days, and I often end up seeing little evidence of that in the work. In speaking to some of the artists featured in the exhibition, I realized that my key assumption — that the term means something like ardent desire for or selfless devotion to another — was my own, and this presumption did not reflect how these artists thought about the title.
Russell Craig’s work “Cognitive Thinking” (2023) consists of collaged strips of leather and painted imagery that make up a combined portrait of three men he had worked with at Mural Arts Philadelphia (all of whom have since died). I asked him in what ways the show’s title is meaningful to him. He said, “What comes to mind is, if you don’t have love for these issues, injustice and things like that, you won’t have any energy to do anything about [them], if you have no connection, no feeling, no passion.”
“Marion” by Jesse Krimes is comprised of the used clothing of incarcerated people and depicts a long-necked bird with golden plumage within a forest of denuded trees. The bird stands next to a discrete domestic setting containing a small rug, along with a wooden chair and a pair of brown boots, a surreal idyll that might only exist in dreams. His answer to the same query was even more succinct than Craig’s: “If you want actual justice in this world, you have to care.”
Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter has a dissimilar idea of what constitutes love, however. She told me, “It really was my love of self that enabled me to survive being shackled for 43 hours while in labor with my son, being sexually abused as a child. I think that has always been my North Star. For me, it’s an internal practice, and through it [I] reverberate love.” Her work in the exhibition manifests this inward gaze. Her giclée print of her head-and-shoulders self-portrait as a young girl, “A Gifted Child” (2023), is overlaid with conflicting information: Public citations by the City Council of Philadelphia, invitations to prestigious events and programs at NYU and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a diploma from the Community College of Philadelphia — but also psychological evaluations that projected her mother’s mental illness onto her. And those prestigious invitations, Baxter said, often didn’t come with the financial support necessary for her to take advantage of the offered opportunities. One example of the acute cognitive dissonance she had to negotiate is a depiction of part of the Philadelphia Enquirer headline and published image that shows her standing with a smiling Van Jones underneath the banner “Jobless, homeless, convict … but now she’s an award-winner.” Each of these instances of misrecognition feels to Baxter like a backhanded compliment, so she uses this collaged image of herself to create what she calls a “counter-narrative.” This story that she tells of herself makes her less of a ghost, subject to other people’s telling, and more real, embodied.
The idea of making material, meaningful interventions in real people’s lives, rooted in an ethic of care, suffuses this exhibition. This outcome is by design. No Justice Without Love is, after all, the artistic and historiographic culmination of the work of the Art for Justice Fund (A4J), which was initiated six years ago when (so the story told by the fund goes) noted philanthropist and MoMA trustee Agnes Gund read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and, after watching Ava DuVernay’s film 13th, sold a painting for $100 million to seed the initiative. It needs to be said that it’s a sign of both how broken and how innovative our culture is that one person only had to sell one painting to make a substantive difference in hundreds, maybe more, people’s lives.
According to Helena Huang, the fund’s director, A4J used that initial investment to fundraise and has created a pot of $126 million, which, by the time it sunsets at the end of this month, will have been allocated to various organizations and individuals who “all joined in common cause around ending and wanting to disrupt the main drivers of mass incarceration.” Among the causes they have supported are advocating for expungement laws, so that formerly incarcerated people have fewer barriers to reentry to society; lifting the 30-year ban on Pell Grant eligibility for those who have been imprisoned; and campaigning to end the practice of jailing for life those who committed crimes as juveniles. These campaigns are all part of a larger effort to combat what Huang points to as the three drivers of mass incarceration: policies regarding bail, overly punitive sentencing practices (such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws), and barriers to reentry for people who were formerly incarcerated. Among the 10 organizations that received grants from A4J this spring are The Center for Art and Advocacy, which developed from the Right of Return Fellowship founded by Craig and Krimes in 2017 (Baxter has been a fellow); Worth Rises, based in New York, whose declared mission is to dismantle the prison industry; and Returning Artists’ Guild, which is based Columbus, Ohio, where it provides studios and exhibition opportunities for justice-impacted artists.
I was not previously familiar with the term “justice-system-impacted.” Krimes explained to me that it refers not only to the circumstance of people who are currently or formerly incarcerated, but also to the children, parents, romantic partners, and others related to those who have been jailed. Huang also familiarized me with the notion of “civil death,” which is based in the idea that part of being truly alive is having the agency to participate in civic society, by voting, for example. In introducing me to this movement to disrupt and end mass incarceration, with its associated language, allies, policies, and institutions, No Justice Without Love feels like it demands more from me as a viewer than a show whose primary concerns are aesthetic. It ultimately poses questions about the roots and limitations of our civic imagination. When do these issues of justice become meaningful to those of us who are not directly justice-impacted?
Our empathic impulse is excited by personal, human connection, by being able to see others as opposed to learning about them via theoretical, philosophical, or even moral arguments. (For instance, the marriage equality movement was to overcome the longstanding bias against same-sex relationships for a complex of reasons, among them the heightened visibility of queer people and the personal relationships that people who were previously hostile to gay rights had with those in their own families.) While many patrons and participants in the arts perform support for social justice causes, according to Krimes, “Just five years ago, no one took any of these issues seriously, at least not in the art world. The visual art world was not paying attention to what was happening in the criminal justice space. Having a show at the Ford Foundation validates the work that people are doing in a way that translates to people in the art world.” Though this isn’t often said publicly, I suspect that part of Gund’s motivation for creating A4J is that having Black grandchildren has led her to understand that people of color are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system at all levels. Indeed, one of the shows that Daisy Desrosiers, the curator of No Justice Without Love, drew inspiration from is Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (which features many of the artists included in this show), curated by Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood. Fleetwood has written and spoken about how “Incarceration has restructured [her] family and [her] hometown of Hamilton, Ohio, in southwest Ohio.”
This show is organized to explore that theme of personal connection in the work of artists who have been incarcerated as well as artists such as Benny Andrews and Faith Ringgold, who have long understood that fighting for the recognition and humane treatment of people who have been jailed is exactly the place where our ethics become meaningful. It presents views from within and outside the carceral system. Ringgold’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (2007) uses illustrative screen prints to convey the story of the sociohistorical context within which Martin Luther King’s and the larger Civil Rights Movement’s activities were arbitrarily criminalized. On the other side, Sherill Roland uses his “168.803” (2021) to express the repetitive and surreal activity of tracing the spaces between cinder blocks in a prison cell. The drudgery of viewing the visual trace of this task indicates the monotony of life inside. Creating a hybrid between these perspectives, Jared Owens’s “FBOP (Federal Bauhaus of Prisons)” (2022) looks at a prison complex from above, as if the viewer has transcended those circumstances, has separated themselves from the crushing conformity that this space enforces.
One of the most provocative works for me is “The Writing on the Wall” (2019), which covers the entire back wall and is made up of essays, poems, letters, stories, diagrams, and notes written by people in prisons around the world. The piece, a collaboration between Dr. Baz Dreisinger, artist Hank Willis Thomas, and several design and production partners, was installed in the High Line years ago and there took the shape of a prison cell that was covered inside and out by the text. Here it has morphed into a text that goes on almost into infinity, saying something about the reach of incarceration. Lastly, adjacent to that is a call-and-response wall initiated by the curator to demonstrate how she started the process of organizing this show. This wall, which also has an online digital repository, started with Desrosiers calling out to artists and requesting those who are justice-system impacted to tell her their stories, and to bring others with them. She told me that the title of the show actually comes from the writer Jimmy Wu, who wrote “There is no justice without love” for a For Freedoms billboard. In partnering with these artists, organizations, initiatives, and activists, Desrosiers has discovered, along with A4J, that justice is also a struggle and this work is how social movements begin.
No Justice Without Love continues at the Ford Foundation Gallery (320 East 43rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 30. The exhibition was curated by Daisy Desrosiers.