Rocks in the water do not know the misery of rocks in the sun.
— Haitian proverb 1
The numbers almost defy belief: Some 2.3 million individuals incarcerated in the United States, a rate of nearly 700 per 100,000, both the highest raw total and percentage of any country in the world. More than 7,000 American penal institutions — state and federal prisons, local jails, juvenile correctional facilities, and more — in which fully twenty percent of all the people behind bars on earth are confined. A U.S. prison population that has grown by more than 500 percent since the 1970s. Yawning racial disparities: twelve times as many men of color held in state and federal prisons as White men and more than five times as many women of color as White women; Black people massively over-represented in terms of death sentences, life and “virtual life” terms, and commitments to solitary confinement. 2
Fully twenty percent of all the people behind bars on earth are confined in American prisons.
Yet for all their factual force, such statistics remain 10,000-foot abstractions for most. Scholars of what has come to be called carceral geography —Ruth Wilson Gilmore, for example, or Dominique Moran — have sought to drive the discourse around spaces and practices of incarceration toward greater theoretical depth and also, importantly, toward specific considerations of the lived experiences of prisoners and their families and loved ones. Nicole R. Fleetwood, a professor at Rutgers University, has developed a kindred mode of particularizing inquiry, one framed around what she’s dubbed “carceral aesthetics.” For Fleetwood, this is a way of thinking about prison art that not only considers its relationship to “economies, power structures governing resources and access, and discourses that legitimate certain works as art and others as craft, material object, historical artifact, or trash”; it also acknowledges “the ways that incarceration reaches far beyond prison walls and the ways that mass imprisonment impacts aesthetics and culture more broadly.” 3 Her book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, and its artifactual companion, an exhibition of the same name held recently at the Museum of Modern Art/PS1 in Long Island City, together provide a survey of carceral art and the issues that both influence and flow from that production. Though their timing was coincidental with the social traumas of the long last year, the method and disposition of Fleetwood’s twinned projects dovetail with newly invigorated debates about the systemic inequities that inform, and deform, the entire American criminal justice system, from the cop on the street to the courts to the penitentiary cages.
The well-worn observation that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” might seem to apply equally to the apparent inevitability of the American carceral state. The statement is often attributed to the cultural critic Fredric Jameson; but its true origin may actually lie in Jameson’s misremembering of an observation made by the historian H. Bruce Franklin about the novelist J. G. Ballard. 4 For it seems that Franklin — who, coincidentally, was a pioneering scholar of carceral aesthetics avant la lettre; his groundbreaking Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist, was published way back in 1973 — once accused Ballard of “mistaking the end of capitalism for the end of the world”; and then wondered what the author would be capable of writing if only “he were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?”
Though never explicitly framed as an abolitionist enterprise, the inescapable arc of Fleetwood’s project nevertheless directs readers and viewers toward the desirability of not merely reforming but eventually eradicating the systems and structures of mass incarceration. This colossal change, supporters argue, will necessarily be informed by Franklin’s formulation: we should not mistake the end of the carceral complex as a blank termination but rather as the beginning of new and more human state of affairs. As Gilmore — an outspoken supporter of the abolitionist effort — has often emphasized: “abolition is about presence, not absence.”
Abolition seeks to undo the way of thinking and doing things that sees prison and punishment as solutions for all kinds of social, economic, political, behavioral and interpersonal problems. Abolition, though, is not simply decarceration, put everybody out on the street. It is reorganizing how we live our lives together in the world. And this is something that people are doing in a variety of ways throughout the United States and around the planet already. It is not a pie-in-the-sky dream. … In other parts of the world, what one sees is a very simple fact: Where life is precious, life is precious. In places where the state, the government, municipalities, social justice organizations, faith communities, labor unions work together to lift up human life, the incidents of crime and punishment, including the incidents of interpersonal harm, are less likely to occur. And this is in places where populations are every bit as diverse as in the United States. We also see that in places where inequality is the deepest, the use of prison and punishment is the greatest. Nowhere, however, gets even close to the United States. 5
The several dozen artists and collaborations that were represented in the galleries at PS1 were, predictably, diverse in both their styles and interests; yet they are also fundamentally united, Fleetwood argues, by the experiential and material penury that saturates every aspect of our misbegotten penal system. As she writes: “Carceral aesthetics is the production of art under the conditions of unfreedom; it involves the creative use of penal space, time, and matter. … Immobility, invisibility, stigmatization, lack of access, and premature death govern the lives of the imprisoned and their expressive capacities. Such deprivation becomes raw material and subject matter for prison art.” 6
Gillespie secretly constructed dozens of exquisitely detailed diorama-style miniatures under cover of darkness in his cell.
Given the depth of this dispossession, it was not surprising to find that the show featured numerous examples of bricolage at its most spartan and ingenious, improbably intricate works using “mushfake” and “procurement” — prison parlance for objects that mirror items from the outside fashioned from supplies (often contraband) acquired on the inside, and for objects that repurpose (without authorization) state materiel. 7 Take, for example, the work of Dean Gillespie, who spent twenty years in Ohio prisons on a wrongful conviction for rape, kidnapping, and aggravated burglary before finally being exonerated in 2011. Using a sprawling network of fellow inmates to acquire items like dental compound (spirited away from the medical unit) and pins (smuggled out of the sewing room), Gillespie secretly constructed dozens of exquisitely detailed diorama-style miniatures under cover of darkness in his cell. Wistful paeans to scenes of small-town Americana from which its maker had found himself unjustly excluded, four such works from the mid-1990s were exhibited in the show — including a burger stand, a gas station, an ice cream shop, and a dinette in the form of an Airstream trailer whose shiny silver exterior was created using cigarette pack foil and whose curtains were used tea bags.
A dramatically different sort of American image-world emerges from the surfaces of Jesse Krimes’s dazzling Apokaluptein 16389067, a marvel of improvised technique made in the early years of this decade. Using hair gel and a spoon, Krimes transferred images — often fashion or art-related advertisements — from assorted print media onto 39 prison bedsheets that he then somehow managed to smuggle, one at a time, out of the Federal Correctional Institution in Fairton, New Jersey. Gathered into its final form at PS1, the 15-foot-high, 40-foot-long work (three horizontal rows of thirteen sheets each) is virtually sui generis in its mode of making. Apokaluptein 16389067 draws somewhat on the tradition of paños — collaged illustrations on handkerchiefs and pillowcases popular among Mexican and Mexican American prison artists — but here the monumentalized format is used to suggest the heavens, earth, and hell.
Krimes was able to fully assemble and see the results of his three years of clandestine labor only after his release.
Krimes was inspired, he has said, by Dante and Giorgio Agamben, both of whom he was reading in prison. 8 It was in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, a study of secular and governmental power structures and their ceremonial-liturgical trappings, that the artist found the Greek word apokaluptein — meaning to reveal or uncover, it is the root of “apocalypse” — which he then paired with his inmate number to create the title. For Krimes, who had received a bachelor’s degree in art before his imprisonment, the blizzard of images is meant to underscore the capitalist notions of value and beauty that undergird the prison-industrial complex. That he was able to fully assemble and see the results of his three years of clandestine labor only after his release in 2014 is itself a powerful metaphor for the atomizing, anti-integrative force of incarceration.
The artist, in violation of regulations, shredded his uniform and embedded it in a thick impasto-like surface formed from acrylic paint and floor wax that he accessed through his custodial job.
For Gillespie and Krimes, the unavailable world on the outside becomes the subject of nostalgic reverie or societal critique. Meanwhile, other artists among Fleetwood’s roster have used the same kinds of materials — what the author calls “state goods” or “penal matter” — to produce works that comment upon the world inside the walls. Gilberto Rivera, a leader of the Latin Kings in New York who was part of a multiracial collective with Krimes and other artists in Fairton, is represented by a suite of energetically gestural mixed-media collages. Among the most arresting is An Institutional Nightmare, from 2012, for which the artist, in violation of regulations, shredded his uniform and embedded it in a thick impasto-like surface formed from acrylic paint and floor wax that he accessed through his custodial job. The prison reports and commissary price lists visible in the tangle of bunched clothing add to the sense that the work is a kind of negative stand-in for Rivera himself, a forceful announcement of subjectivity and personhood made by emphasizing its apparent absence in these imposed artifacts, and by appropriating and disfiguring the kinds of administrative accoutrements that delimited his identity inside prison.
Rivera’s detournement of state goods as a mode of commentary is echoed in The Leavenworth Project, an intriguing group of sculptures made by Daniel McCarthy Clifford in 2018. A former federal prisoner, Clifford began graduate studies following his release, and the project drew on his research into the history of the federal penitentiary and U.S. military disciplinary barracks in Leavenworth, Kansas. Both sites have notoriously been used to incarcerate political dissidents, including soldiers in a Black army unit who rebelled against police brutality in Houston in 1917, and, a year later, radical members of the Industrial Workers of the World, the labor union that took an antiwar stance during the First World War. Clifford’s project features post-minimalist arrays like One Ton Ježek, which uses cafeteria food trays to create what he describes as an “anti-monument” to the excesses of state power turned against political dissenters.
The artist’s portrait embodies a powerful response to the assorted visual framings — mug shots, ID cards, etc. — imposed on prisoners by the system.
For all the stylistic range of Marking Time, the form that predominates, as it does within the prison system at large, is the portrait. Fleetwood suggests several interrelated reasons for this. Because it requires little more than pencil and paper, the portrait functions as a kind of entrée into the world of artmaking; subjects are everywhere, from a reflection in the mirror to a cafeteria tablemate. The artist’s portrait also embodies a powerful response to the assorted visual framings — mug shots, ID cards, etc. — imposed on prisoners by the system; in this sense, they replace the pervasive objectification of the penal complex with self-exercised subjectivity. “Through portraiture,” Fleetwood writes, “the imprisoned claim the right not only to look but also to represent themselves and others,” and the grim context for this enactment of personhood adds a note of plangent presence to what is often considered an overly familiar genre. 9 This is certainly the case with Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, by Mark Loughney. For this ongoing work, which he started in 2014, the artist has made more than 650 small graphite drawings of himself and fellow prisoners. The work’s title comes from a sociological theory that posits that the ultimate goal of the criminal justice system is not to eradicate crime but rather to keep it suppressed and yet visible, thereby reinforcing an image of the “criminal” (typically, people of color) and allowing the penal system to perpetuate itself.
The institutional facts of their creation also heighten the potency of the self-portraits on view. Russell Craig’s wall-filling Self Portrait II, from 2020, is a vivid and boisterous piece, with its complex setting of the artist’s image rendered in paint atop a frieze of leather satchels and surrounded by canvas panels stained with washes of cow blood. Tameca Cole’s Locked in a Dark Calm, from 2016, is a much smaller but no less powerful work of graphite and collage, depicting the artist’s face all but enveloped in a shroud of gray pencil fog. And the beautifully simple Self-Portrait, by Billy Sell, is smaller still, yet this drawing, which shows the artist looking pensive, his hand partly covering his face, is arguably one of the most affecting. Sell died in July 2013 while taking part in a mass hunger strike to protest the conditions of solitary confinement; the strike began in Pelican Bay, a so-called supermax in northern California, and eventually included over 30,000 prisoners. Sell had drawn the haunting self-portrait a year earlier, while in solitary confinement, as part of a correspondence art course run by a newsletter for prisoners; in the exhibition, his drawing was presented alongside a series of heartbreaking letters he exchanged with Tracy Ziegler, the volunteer teacher with whom he was studying. In the letters, Sell expresses doubts about not just his own artistic talent but indeed the possibility that he will even be able to acquire the necessary materials to do the classwork: “I’m sorry,” he writes, emphasizing the words. “I feel as though I have wasted your time. However, my tools as you will see prohibit me from giving you a solid effort.”
Lutalo, an activist-anarchist affiliated with the Black Liberation Army, spent years in solitary confinement, less for any infractions, than for his politics.
Marking Time is full of strong work with similarly difficult backstories. There’s Aint I a Woman, a brilliantly flowing rap film by Isis Tha Savior (Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter) that describes her pregnancy and the birth of her son while she was incarcerated. There’s also the vibrant collection of political posters by Ojore Lutalo, an activist-anarchist affiliated with the Black Liberation Army who was arrested after attempting to rob a bank in order to fund revolutionary projects and then spent 22 years in solitary confinement — less for any infractions, he has said, than for his politics. And there are also memorable works that were made not by incarcerated people but instead by outsiders — photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick that document conditions at the notorious Angola Prison, located on a former Louisiana slave plantation; or The Bedroom Project, a photojournalistic series by former public defender Sarah Bennett that tracks the lives of women who have been released from prison after lengthy terms, giving them a chance to relate their own thoughts about their lives during and after incarceration.
These artists are struggling to imagine life as it might be, with each creative effort attempting somehow to summon into existence a new, more human world.
Happily for those who weren’t able to visit PS1 — an especially large category, these days — Fleetwood’s book is even more capacious than the exhibition. Near the end of it, she delves into a series of collaborative projects focused around the Tamms Correctional Center, a supermax in Illinois where every single prisoner was held in solitary, deprived of all group activities, phone calls, and visits from family. A campaign to shutter the prison — initiated by artist and activist Laurie Jo Reynolds and involving volunteers who raised public awareness through pen-pal programs, testimonies from then-current and former inmates, and the “I Am A Mom” Project, which collected portraits of prisoners’ mothers — finally resulted in its closure in 2013. But one part of the campaign has continued: Prison Requests from Solitary, a “participatory project that invites men and women held in long-term solitary confinement in U.S. prisons to request a photograph of anything at all, real or imagined, and then finds a volunteer to make that image.” 10 The requests range from a photo of a meaningful site (“My auntie’s house and the whole block of 63rd and S. Marshfield”); to some glimpse of regular life (“Kids eating in a fast food joint”); to a fantastical image symbolizing love and freedom (“A blue rose in a crystal vase with Perseids meteor shower”); to a virtual projection of the prisoner himself in a different setting, as in the request from a man named Roberto that his photo be superimposed “on another background. Nothing too much please. Something simple like a blue sky with clouds or a sunset in the distance would be fine.” 11
This extraordinary collaboration between incarcerated people and volunteer photographers has produced what Fleetwood calls “an archive of envisioning possibility for those rendered socially and civically dead.” She then cites scholar Stephen Dillon, who, she says, proposes that such images serve to “queer penal space and time.” “The visions created by the prisoners and artists in Photo Requests from Solitary,” writes Dillon, “see beyond the ‘prison house’ of the here and now to spaces and temporalities that may seem familiar but are ultimately otherworldly in that they demand an undoing of normative epistemologies, ontologies, and order of the world itself. … the queerness of the photos point[s] to ways of living, seeing, and organizing life that render the prison and its regimes of social death abnormal and unnatural.” 12
Dillon’s reading of Photo Requests from Solitary seems to me to apply just as readily to the art-making documented in Marking Time. So many of the images in the book and exhibition operate as nothing less than mechanisms of ecstasy — as means by which the artists might project themselves “out of place,” beyond the spaces and systems of imprisonment. In doing so, they are also beginning to imagine life as it might otherwise be, with each creative effort attempting somehow to summon into existence a new, more human world.