A cousin of my mother's, who inherited the house from my great-grandmother, made a mistake that I think was very serious: while restoring the attics of the large building, he scraped out the memories of the prisoners who were imprisoned in the attics during the war of 1915-1918. On the plaster of the walls, in fact, the prisoners had scratched, probably with the help of knives or pieces of plaster, or brick, their names, rudimentary love poems dedicated to their beauties (I remember in detail a "Rosina, te amo" - Rosina, I love you - , scratched in Venetian dialect) and those mythological symbols (now I know they are not mythological, but they are very real) bearing vertical parallel segments cut by a horizontal segment, to count the days spent in captivity.
Tameca Cole, Locked in a Dark Calm, 2016. Collage and graphite on paper. 8 1/2 x 11 inches. Collection Ellen Driscoll.
This not-so-distant memory got me hooked on "Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration," a stirring 44-artist show at the reopened MoMA PS1. The meaning of the title is illustrative of the period we're facing (and we're not just talking about the feeling of being incarcerated because of Covid), not condemning, but emphasizing, the ease with which Blacks in America are being abused by law enforcement nowadays: the United States has the largest population of captive human beings on earth, around 2.4 million, and an outsized percentage of them are Black. Since the 1980s, prison life sentences have quadrupled; the minimum age for imprisonment has dropped; the use of solitary confinement, sometimes referred to as "no-touch torture," has grown.
MoMa is exhibiting work by these 44 artists (including American Artist, Tameca Cole, Russell Craig, James "Yaya" Hough, Jesse Krimes, Mark Loughney, Gilberto Rivera, and Sable Elyse Smith), and the exhibition has been updated to reflect the growing COVID-19 crisis in US prisons, featuring new works by exhibition artists made in response to this ongoing emergency.
Many of the works on display were conceived in prison, I speak particularly of Dean Gillispie who built fantastical tabletop versions of images from his working-class childhood: miniature gas stations, movie houses, and roadside restaurants. He built them out of discarded junk held together with pins stolen from prison tailoring; but also of Jesse Krimes (with few exceptions, Dr. Fleetwood - guest curator - avoids mentioning the specific reasons why the artists in the show were incarcerated, presumably to prevent their art from being read through the lens of criminality), who created what can be described as "a labor-intensive, cinematic-scale paradise landscape composed of images taken from newspapers, fashion glossies and art magazines, with all images printed by transfer-using hair gel as a medium-on more than three dozen prison sheets. With the help of fellow inmates and cooperative guards, he was able, over the course of three years, to mail the sheets, one at a time, to friends. It wasn't until his release in 2014 that he was able to see the panels combined into a single work measuring 15 feet high and 40 feet wide. He called it "Apokaluptein 16389067," combining the Greek verb "to reveal" and his prison number" (Holland Cotter, from The New York Times).
Installation view of Jesse Krimes, Apokaluptein 16389067 (2010–2013) in the exhibition Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Image courtesy MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus
Dean Gillispie, Spiz’s Dinette, 1998. Tablet backs, stick pins, popsicle sticks, cigarette foil. 16 x 8 x 5 in. Courtesy of the artist.
No less ambitious in scale, though executed in much smaller increments, is a piece that fills the room of Mark Loughney, who is in prison in Pennsylvania. Titled "Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration," it is a wrap-around, floor-to-ceiling installation of some 500 head-shot-style drawings of the artist's fellow prisoners. In the most recent depictions, made after the pandemic began, inmates wear masks.
Without now wanting to propose a virtual visit to the show, I would like to pause and reflect on the beneficial power of art in the minds of people during difficult and dark times, post-traumatic care and other amenities. Art therapy has developed historically since the 1940s in Great Britain and the United States as a treatment modality for traumatized war veterans admitted to psychiatric hospitals. Initially practiced by artists sensitive to the communicative potential of art in collaboration with psychologists and psychiatrists impressed by the effectiveness of artistic language, it has developed into an autonomous discipline. Over the years, the fields of application of art therapy have expanded and increased, and have acquired a significant dimension in the prevention and rehabilitation of various psychological and social disorders.
The exhibition is open until April 4th, and is a beautiful example of how artistic expression has had the power and strength to make bodies forced into chains travel with the mind. Art brings us into communication with the Other, with the Outside, with the Divine.
Keep in mind.