When it comes to glorifying the subculture of prison life, Hollywood keeps its shady promises. From American Me (1992) to American History X (1998), the gamut of fraternal secret codes - handshakes, gang tattoos, Neitzchean kill-or-be-killed ethics - get replayed like so many Italian Mafia clichés without ever truly expressing the depressing monotony of a life sentence. It's all glamorous jail breaks and choreographed cafeteria rumbles as tinsel town cashes in on another genre of unchecked male violence. Clint Eastwood escapes from Alcatraz, Jon Voigt hops on a runaway train, Cool Hand Luke gets martyred and the rest are released into a confusing and indifferent world. We get the climactic spectacle, but never the anguished interior thoughts of a prisoner pacing himself for the long haul. How could we? A 90 minute prison movie is an amped-up metronome, ticking off shower scenes like a series of reps in the ubiquitous weight room. Time here is like testosterone: manic, impulsive and short tempered.
So perhaps it's not surprising that Chloe Piene trades film's breakneck speed for the epistolary form's slowed down, more ruminative pace. Lovelady Texas (1999) is a collected book of letters from Piene's seven month correspondence with a convicted felon in a Texas federal penitentiary. While at art school, the artist answered an advertisement in a magazine, about becoming pen-pals with a prisoner. As she had been making portraits of prisoners, she seized the opportunity to be closer to her subject, notwithstanding the 4,000 miles that separates the two. In over 200 pages of handwritten letters, we learn of the double murder that landed Piene's anonymous scribe in jail, his conversion to the Aryan Brotherhood, his dubious racial politics, and his die-hard love of weightlifting and heavy metal music, releases for his admittedly aggressive impulses.
But these are just facts. Where Lovelady Texas succeeds is in capturing the sense of moment to moment longing, of real obsession bordering on real despair, of a relationship doomed from the start. There are no Montagues and Capulets or West Side Story ethnic feuds separating our star-crossed lovers en route to an unknowable, if eventually tragic conclusion. Life without parole doesn't bend so easily to film's dramatic stereotypes. Though Piene's story is unscripted, its conclusion is writ large over every desirous sentence: thanks to the Texas penal code, the two will never be together. And because we know this with an early, dreadful certainty that mocks the prisoner's continual hope for a speedy appeal and quick release, their story is a tragedy from the beginning, not just a Greek farce of littered bodies at the end.
Their correspondence becomes a Beckettian limbo of waiting to be together, but instead of existential impediments to human connection, we get real obstacles. Alone in his cell, Piene's platonic lover punctuates his naked emotions with 'You're my sweetheart, my #1 Lady' and 'I wish you could X-ray my heart'. In a sense, Piene has already done so in a series of charcoal portraits of a skeletal mother and child. She grafts bits of fleshy tissue to porous bone as if to say that the capacity for good and evil courses through our sinews, rather than being genetically hardwired. It's still biological, but more primordial.
Piene continues in this vein with a four minute looped DVD projection, Little David (1999). This darkened backyard scene depicts a young boy clad only in underwear stomping around menacingly, clenching his fists, and flexing his muscles. His voice is slowed down to an ominous bass as he intones 'I'm a weightlifting barbarian fanatic'. No doubt he will be, but right now he's a creepy caricature of every pro-wrestling drone who once got sand kicked in their face. And this, in essence, is Piene's point: we are born into a world of theatrically violent rituals that beget real violence and more tellingly, we memorise lines of false bravado before sincere affection. To judge from Lovelady Texas, it's already too late.