Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Portraits of Purpose series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

ARE WE HITTING PEAK-PRISON-ART-SHOW?

Of course, I’m being provocative, but the rise and rise of prison criticism and reflection (and commodification) in the cultural sphere bears consideration.

Here is not an exhaustive list but a few examples — Life After Death and Elsewhere, curated by Robin Paris and Tom Williams at apexart; To Shoot A Kite curated by Yaelle Amir at the CUE Foundation; Voices Of Incarceration at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; Try Youth As Youth curated by Meg Noe at David Weinberg in Chicago; Site Unseen: Incarceration curated by Sheila Pinkel; The Cell and the Sanctuary put on by the William James Association in Santa Cruz, CA; and my own Prison Obscura.

This weekend, Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives will end its 10-week run at the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art at Chaffey College in Southern California. Inside/Outside is a relatively large survey of prisoner art, prison photography and visual activism that brings together the work of Sandow Birk, Camilo Cruz, Amy Elkins, Alyse Emdur, Ashley Hunt, Spencer Lowell, Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), Jason Metcalf, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Kristen S. WilkinsSteve Shoffner, the Counter Narrative Society and students at the California Institute for Women.

It’s a great exhibition.

As many of the names in Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives are familiar, I felt a review by me would be redundant; it’d be dominated by applause to the committed artists I see as asking the right questions … because they’re the questions I’ve ask too.

Instead, I wanted to focus on the recent uptick in fine art exhibitions orbiting the issues of prisons.

Rebecca Trawick, Director of the Wignall Museum and co-curator of Inside/Outside and I were in touch a while before I realised that this should be what we should discuss. And how the cultural production of art around, and about, the prison industrial complex propels, inspires, derails (and much else besides) dialogue about mass incarceration in America.

Kindly, Trawick and her co-curator, Misty Burruel, Associate Professor of Art at Chaffey College accepted my invite to answer some questions. The Q&A is peppered with artworks from Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives.

Scroll down for our discussion.

Cruz, Camilo

Camilo Cruz, Untitled from the Theater of Souls series, 56 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Q & A

Prison Photography (PP): Why did you make this exhibition?

Rebecca Trawick (RT): Incarceration was an issue that I kept returning to in my research.

As a curator, I’m specifically interested in shedding light on important but difficult social issues through the lens of contemporary art. I love how artists can take an unwieldly topic and consider it thoughtfully, often personally, and in really compelling ways that allow the viewer a chance at transformation, or expansion of, thought and perspective.

Because we work at an institution of higher education, these exhibitions become a safe space to start difficult discussions about issues such as incarceration, and they become a tool to educate and inform. This kind of exhibition (if done well) can demonstrate the value of art to transform ideas, minds, and communities.

Misty Burruel (MB): Because it was a challenge. On the heels of a number of incarceration exhibitions in southern California that focused on works by incarcerated artists and artists confronting the criminal justice system, it was appropriate to look at it through the lens of education.

We are confronted daily with students that have either been incarcerated or have family who are incarcerated. It was time to have difficult discussions about the role of education in the penal system, our responsibility as citizens to each other, and how parolees reintegrate into yet another system.

Spencer Lowell, La Palma prison, Arizona

PP: Is incarceration a “hot topic” right now? Why?

RT: As Misty and I mention in our remarks in the printed takeaway, we seem to be experiencing a unique convergence of policy discussions in the US as well as popular culture interests, so we feel like the conversation is already happening in certain circles.

We hope our exhibition helps to expand the discussion and dig a little deeper into some of the topics looked at in contemporary documentary (think the recent Vice episode, Fixing the System, in which President Obama – the first sitting US President to do so – visited a federal prison) to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.

MB: Jenji Kohan’s, Orange is the New Black, portrayal of incarcerated women created a splash on Netflix and revealed through mass media the complexities of a system within a system. The women were all too real and relatable. We live in the Inland Empire and have two prisons at our footstep.

PP: California Institute for Men and  California Institute for Women.

Jason Metcalf, Cheeseburger, French Fries, Iced Tea (Dwight Adanandus), 2013, archival pigment print, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

PP: Is Inside/Outside about incarceration or is it about the representation of incarceration?

RT: The exhibition is about the many issues surrounding incarceration that we hope our viewers will consider more deeply after viewing the work on view. Issues include the value of rehabilitation behind bars; juveniles in justice; death penalty, segregation, prison labor, and isolation as systems of control, among others.

PP: How did you select the artists?

RT: The Wignall Museum mainly draws from Southern California for practical reasons–funding limits us to local pickups mainly. In some cases (Kristin S. Wilkins, for example) agreed to ship the work to us so we were able to include her. We’re often limited regionally, which explains the SoCal bias. We would have loved to include works outside our region, if possible. (see next question for a list of some we would have included if possible.) The one thing I remind myself is that we’re not trying to be essentialist in what we portray or explore, but rather offer some really amazing work to assist us in digging a little deeper into the state of incarceration today.

MB: We are in a human warehousing gridlock. The works collectively focus on how the system of control does not discriminate (women, men, and youth detention).

Kristen S. Wilkins, Untitled #10. From the  series ‘Supplication’ (2009-2014) “Grand Ave. by Shiloh (Cemetery). Left side of water fountain. Has colorful wreath with flowers. It is where my son is @. He is the best thing that happened to me in my life. He was my world.”

PP: Were there any artists or works out there that you’d wanted in the show but couldn’t for whatever reason?

RT: Yes! Many. The list includes Deborah Luster, Dread Scott, Jackie Sumell’s The House That Herman Built, and Julie Green’s Last Supper installation all immediately come to mind. There were many others, but those three stand out for me.

MB: We wanted to have more guest speakers, but funding always seems to be a hurdle. We can certainly look at the issue, but we really wanted to talk about it.

PP: Really? From the outside that you had a phenomenal amount of programming. I applaud you. How important was programing around the exhibition?

RT: Programming is critical. Because we’re limited in many ways in terms of what we can show – due to spatial and fiscal restrictions – programming allows us to bring in experts in the field to further contextualize and expand the themes of the exhibition. It also allows community engagement and for other voices to join in the conversation, often in a public forum. That ability can’t be underestimated, I think.

MB: When the discussing an exhibition about incarceration we were most focused on programming. Rebecca and I are collaborative by nature and we were able to find others who were very interested in asking difficult questions within their own disciplines (Sociology, Philosophy, Correctional Science, Administration of Justice).

pinkel, sheila

© Sheila Pinkel

PP: I’ve been asked a number of times “Who are you (a white, cis-gender, male, college graduate) to speak to these issues?” Every time by a highschooler — God, I love them. Were you ever challenged over your role and/or position while putting Inside/Outside: Prison Narratives together?

RT: As a curator at an institution situated on the campus of a Community College I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to explore a wide array of topics in our exhibitions and to look from a place of diversity – diversity of media, content, viewpoint, race, ethnicity, etc. – and through the lens of contemporary art, but it is critical that we do so in a way that is thoughtful and multifaceted.

Philosophically we try to schedule our exhibitions and programs in a way that expand outside of our own limited perspectives. We also try to use multiple guest voices – guest curators, guest speakers, etc. to expand the discourse around an exhibition. But the long and the short of it is, I try to always be conscious of my privilege and to present diverse voices. That said, my own experience/perspective was never called into question during the exhibition planning or implementation phase.

MB: The college has wholeheartedly embraced the exhibition and its programming.

Amy Elkins. 26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was), 2011. Portrait of a man twenty-six years into his death row sentence where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

You’ve said the response so far has been positive. More than other Wignall shows? More among the student body, or beyond? How do you measure response/success?

RT: This exhibition definitely has seemed to link to something that is personal and relatable for many of our students, faculty and community visitors, evident by the verbal responses and reactions we’ve seen in the galleries. We’ve held a number of panel discussions, engagement activities, a film screening, and dozens of tours. Unequivocally, discussions always seem to lead to the personal and comments suggest that the ability to discuss a somewhat taboo topic has been relevant.

MB: This work is incredibly personal and relevant to the Inland Empire.

 

PP: Can you see the successes and failures of the show already? Or is it too soon for that type of assessment?

RT: Success can be measured in qualitative and quantitative ways … (as of course, can failure). Due to the high level of programming, and the sheer number of student tours we’ve conducted, we can see an increased level of engagement. Our visitor numbers are up, the number of students speaking up during tours has increased a great deal, and the unsolicited feedback from students/faculty/staff we’re getting has been remarkable.

We also ask all students who visit us as part of a tour to fill out a short survey. Results won’t be tabulated until the close of the exhibition, but I feel the results will mirror the anecdotal evidence we’re seeing. As a curator, however, I’m always thinking about what we can improve upon – from the curatorial practice, to layout and installation, to printed collateral and programming…reflection is key.

MB: I think the museum does an amazing job of allowing artists to ask difficult questions and explore relevant social and political issues.

 

The Wignall Museum hosted workshops and discussion led by Mabel Negrete and the Counter Narratives Society.

PP: Anything you’d like to add?

RT: We hope that Inside/Outside and the many other excellent exhibitions and artists looking at incarceration with a critical perspective will encourage the questioning of the system as it is, and that it might even encourage engagement in our communities in ways that can make real change in the world.

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