PUBLIC ART, PRISON ART: THE “FREE FORMS” OF ARTISTS IN ABSENTIA
BY: ELIZABETH SCHEER
The creators of Artists in Absentia have grappled, since the exhibition’s inception over a year ago, with two distinct curatorial problems. The first relates to the exhibition venue: the Bubbler is a “maker space” in a public library rather than a gallery in a private museum. As such, it registers as a classroom instead of an art venue; there is relatively limited wall area, and no way to adequately protect the work on display. The second problem concerns the artists themselves, who cannot actually participate in their own exhibition: incarcerated as they are, the “artists in residence” here might be seen, instead, as “artists in absence.” What is meant to be a dynamic interchange between the artist and the community, then, is thwarted by the strict rules that govern the exchange between those serving time in correctional facilities and the world outside. Along the way, these constraints have posed for us, the exhibition organizers, a series of logistical dilemmas. How, for example, can we adequately recognize individual painters or poets when their full names cannot be attached to their works? And how do we facilitate “open” workshops, an integral part of the Bubbler residency program, on behalf of artists whose worlds are so often defined in terms of closure—being “locked up” or “shut away”? These questions have emerged as integral to the stakes of this exhibition at large. Artists in Absentia represents our efforts to display, in a public space, the work of those who have been paradoxically removed from public sight.
Central to the curatorial work of this show is the compelling but complicated relation between the terms of “public art” and “prison art.” What does it mean for art to be “public”? And can the artwork generated in prisons be categorized as “public” when the artists themselves are purposefully separated from that domain? The work shown here might be seen as “public art,” insofar as its thematic concerns are still deeply democratic, depicting as it does the desires, frustrations and hopes of the many instead of the remote and aloof concerns of the few (as contemporary art is so often construed to do). When we think of public art, we think of work that lies outside the rarefied sector of the museum: public art takes the form of murals and graffiti, is inclusive and participatory, and tends to reinforce traditional and fundamental values that are easy to identify and understand.
A great deal of the work in this space falls within this loose definition of public art. The themes of faith, love, family, regret, and nostalgia are pressed to the surface through what consists largely of representational images and direct, candid verse. The stories documented here are those of people who have worked, loved and suffered in communities that are recognizable to all of us. Further compounding the sense of this work as “public art” is the fact that these works appear in a public venue where we can view them for free. Ironically, however, that which makes this art “public” is also what renders it distinctly not public; it was made in a prison, an institution designed to separate the artists from the rest of society. Can we truly regard “prison art” to be “public art” if it has been created in such a quarantined space?
To begin to answer this question, we might conceive of prison art as being neither public, nor distinctly institutional either. Artists in Absentia urges against reading this work as an index of a creative vision that has been stymied or oppressed by the correctional institution. Rather, we invite you to see how the artists here have wielded the form of the prison as an artistic medium, a malleable material that, like clay or paint, has its own particular set of affordances and constraints. The constraints of incarceration are all too apparent. But in many of these works, you will see how the prison has become an apparatus that, for better or worse, imaginatively structures the artist’s vision. Sometimes the prison is embedded in the work’s materiality, as limited art supplies prompts innovative combinations of mediums: letters scratched into sawdust, a bent paper clip affixing paper to cardboard in a pivoting wheel. Sometimes the prison is also embedded in the work’s content: a watchtower rendered in charcoal or lyrics that reflect directly on the artist’s personal history. If public art is a genre, then we might see prison art as a method: a way of working and of seeing under particular constraints.
This effort to define prison art leads to a final question: how do we interpret this work? To my mind, the art deserves a “formalist” reading—that is, to be read as an aesthetic object that stands outside of the context in which it was created. A formal reading of these works, a reading that delves into the structure and composition of each piece, unhinges it from the social institution in which it was created. Like a free form drawing or poem, a formalist reading allows the art, and by relation, the artist himself, to be a “free form” released from the structures through which the public too readily defines him. Each work, in other words, warrants commentary that accounts both for the “method” of its construction (that is, its status as “prison art”), but also sees the given piece as greater than its method. By telescoping out of the prison, by evaluating these pieces for their own sake, we might metaphorically reunite these incarcerated artists with the public from which they have been separated.