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Issue 218

What an Abolitionist Exhibition Looks Like in a Carceral World

At MoMA PS1, New York, Nicole R. Fleetwood curates a show that considers the artistic output of those irrevocably shaped by the conditions of the prison industrial complex

BY Catherine Damman in Reviews , US Reviews | 11 FEB 21

‘Mass incarceration’, a phrase that has gained much purchase in the last two decades, features prominently in the title of ‘Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration’, an exhibition at New York’s MoMA PS1 and a book published by Harvard University Press. Both are the culmination of more than ten years of effort by Nicole R. Fleetwood, Professor of American Studies and Art History at Rutgers University. Describing a phenomenon that began in the late 1960s – in which the prisons system ballooned exponentially – the term ‘mass incarceration’ is sometimes poorly interpreted, taken to mean that the problem is only one of scale or degree, not of kind. Today, many are convinced that there are too many prisons and too many people in them; far too few are convinced that there should be no prisons at all.

Debates about prison reform, sentencing policy and institutional conditions can obscure the underlying issues, which are not questions but emergencies: the ethical malfeasance of keeping humans in cages and whether harm done at the hands of an individual could ever justify an immense, worldmaking project of state violence. There is a sparkling clarity to prison abolitionism, with which Fleetwood engages sensitively. Yet, if abolition is the lucid ground of this project, its figures – the conditions shaping art’s reception, the perceived social values of artmaking and the differing yet entwined institutionalism of prisons and museums – are often in more tenebrous relation. How will an abolitionist exhibition be received in an emphatically carceral world?

Gilberto Rivera, An Institutional Nightmare, 2012
Gilberto Rivera, An Institutional Nightmare, 2012, federal prison uniform, commissary papers, floor wax, prison reports, newspaper, acrylic paint on canvas, 82 × 62 cm. Collection Jesse Krimes. Courtesy: the artist and MoMA PS1, New York

Consider Gilberto Rivera’s striking An Institutional Nightmare (2012), its unctuous cerulean ground punctuated by reds, waxy yellows and the sombre brown of a federal prison uniform: materials which together modulate between sculptural relief and painterly brushstroke. The uniform seems both unconstrained by gravity and horrifically caught in an atmosphere from which it struggles to emerge. The collar’s gape at the lower right suggests, but refuses to represent, an absent wearer. Above, a crumpled form and a visible signature (that of Rivera’s corrections officer) function like a mordant joke on authorship and the artist’s hand.

Though Rivera’s mixed-media work is faceless, in prison portraiture dominates. Portraits act as a kind of currency for those inside, a means of sending missives to family and a way to solidify a sense of self. Examples include Mark Loughney’s 651 graphite drawings of incarcerated comrades (‘Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration’, 2014–ongoing); Tameca Cole’s collaged self-portrait Locked in a Dark Calm (2016) (reminiscent of Charles White’s 1965 Nobody Knows My Name); and Ronnie Goodman’s tender acrylic renderings. Sara Bennett’s two juxtaposed series, ‘Looking Inside: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences’ and ‘In the Bedroom’ (both 2019), feature women in their emphatically material domestic spaces: the former carceral, the latter after release. Each woman’s handwritten captions narrate the daily labour of reproducing one’s own survival. The outdoors also offers a source of beauty, as in the delicate woodland creatures, meticulously painted on leaves by Todd (Hyung-Rae) Tarselli.

Tameca Cole, Locked in a Dark Calm, 2016
Tameca Cole, Locked in a Dark Calm, 2016, collage and graphite 22 × 28 cm. Collection of Ellen Driscoll. Courtesy: the artist and MoMA PS1, New York

In modernism’s wake, both portraiture, imagined as the surface depiction of an inner self, and representations of an idealized nature have often been considered démodé practices. Thus, the exhibition does not only make visible life on the inside, it elucidates the many prejudices shaping contemporary art’s discursive terrain. No doubt, the show aims to dismantle such exclusionary values; undoubtedly, however, many viewers may only permit their partial suspension, amounting to a kind of spectatorial chauvinism. Moreover, when featuring those previously excluded from art’s sacred precincts, narratives of otherness and marginalization can overshadow entry points into the work itself. Lastly, museum presentations, despite all attempts at the contrary, are persistently heraldic. It is righteous to celebrate incarcerated artists’ creative ambitions and their capacities to transcend material constraint; it is much harder to ensure that the conditions of their making are justly condemned. Captivity’s ineluctable enclosure is why Fleetwood defines these works as ‘carceral’ rather than ‘abolitionist’.

Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014–present, series of graphite drawings on paper 651 pieces total, 30 × 23 cm. Courtesy: the artist and MoMA PS1, New York

Both the exhibition and book are art histories of the present. (Many of the works are impossible to date precisely, but most are from the past decade.) The benefit of such presentism is its urgency: throwing the ongoing carceral crisis into high relief, the works demand not to be ignored. Yet the story is also an old one, as evidenced by Jared Owens’s Ellapsium: master & Helm (2016), for which Owens’s abstraction gives way to familiar, terrible imagery: the iconic 1788 diagram of the Brookes slave ship overlaid with his prison’s own blueprints. Time also stretches in Jesse Krimes’s Apokaluptein 16389067 (2010–13), made over three years, as Krimes slowly, surreptitiously transferred images, using hair gel and a spoon, onto 39 separate bed sheets. Only after his release was the work joined together and made whole.

Jesse Krimes’s Apokaluptein 16389067
Jesse Krimes, Apokaluptein 16389067, 2010–13, prison bed sheets, transferred newsprint, colour pencil, graphite, and gouache, 5 × 12 m. Courtesy: the artist, Malin Gallery, New York and MoMA PS1, New York

During a November conversation, hosted by Artists Space in New York, poet and scholar Jackie Wang and Fleetwood spoke about their hesitancy in using the term ‘social death’ to describe incarceration. Coined in 1985 by sociologist Orlando Patterson, social death names the ways that enslavement renders its subjects ‘imprintable’ and ‘disposable’, fundamentally precluded from definitions of the human. Fleetwood and Wang articulated an important quandary: how to describe carcerality’s brutal project with adequate gravity while, at the same time, avoiding the symbolic violence of circumscribing incarcerated people to the realm of unliving or subhuman? Such questions are urgent not least because many incarcerated people’s life’s work is an attempt at shouting the persistence of their humanity loud enough that others will finally hear it.

Many struggle to parse the dialectics of domination and resistance. By contrast, little uncertainty features in the photocopied collage posters of Ojore Lutalo, a formerly incarcerated member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA). Most were made while Lutalo served 22 years of his sentence in solitary confinement. Taken together, their enunciative juxtapositions collapse time and place, not by reductive flattening but by necessary solidarity. Thus we see fellow BLA member Assata Shakur near the anarchist Emma Goldman; Carlota Lucumí (a leader in the antislavery rebellion at the Triunvirato plantation in Matanzas, Cuba) in counterpoint to antiracists activists Sekou Odinga and Bonnie Kerness; and a photograph of Lutalo himself atop a cartoon satirizing the ongoing US settler colonial project. His work suggests – I think rightly – that all prisoners are political prisoners.

Ojore Lutalo install
Ojore Lutalo, Untitled, n.d., installation view, photocopied collaged posters, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and MoMA PS1, New York; photography: Matthew Septimus

Prison arts and education programmes form another major thread in the exhibition. Such initiatives are vital: they engender new forms of sociality and provide access to resources otherwise foreclosed. They can also, despite best intentions, reinscribe strict hierarchies between those inside and out. Worse yet, such programmes occasionally serve as evidence against abolition, permitting prison evangelists to claim that its conditions are not so heinous after all. How to hold the very real sustenance and solace that making art while incarcerated can provide – and the immense risks artists take to continue doing so – while also avoiding the grosser articulations of ‘consolation’, as when the resulting artworks are warped into tools for assuaging liberal guilt?

These are structural contradictions to which Fleetwood is deeply attuned, her work vibrating at a precise wavelength between the twin prongs of the scholarly and the personal. None of these antagonisms is in any way a failing of the project itself – a brilliant, ambitious undertaking shot through with real love. Rather, they are the dilemmas produced by a society steeped in a hegemonic carceral imaginary, and a political economy that requires, even demands, the continuation of this violence in law and order’s name. Their resolution will only arrive in an abolitionist future: a horizon that – far from impossible – is only not yet here.

Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration' at MoMA PS1, New York, is on view through 4 April 2021.

Main image: 'Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration', exhibition view, MoMA PS1, New York. Courtesy: MoMA PS1, New York; photography: Matthew Septimus

Catherine Damman is an art historian and critic, and is currently a visiting assistant professor of art history at Wesleyan University. Her writing on experimental dance, theater, film, music, and the visual arts can be found in ArtforumBookforumArt in AmericaArt Journal, and elsewhere.