PROVIDENCE — Some artists choose to work within defined limitations. But the limitations around art made in prisons, jails, and detention centers, or carceral aesthetics, as art historian and 2021 MacArthur Fellow Nicole R. Fleetwood calls it, are drastic: Supplies are scarce, and the institutional surroundings ugly.
Fleetwood organized “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” at David Winton Bell Gallery and Cohen Gallery at Brown University. The show, a version of which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 2020, is a window into the prison industrial complex, a dehumanizing system that objectifies incarcerated people, who are disproportionately Black and brown.
For such artists, making art can be soul-saving, a means to claim identity.
Dean Gillispie served 20 years in prison for rape, and was released in 2011 after the Ohio Innocence Project at Cincinnati Law advocated for him. His conviction was vacated, and last year he was found wrongfully imprisoned. While in prison, he secretly crafted exquisite, nostalgic miniatures from scavenged materials. “Spiz’s Dinette,” a replica of a 1960s Airstream camper, features curtains made of tea bags and metal cladding made from cigarette pack foil.
For his epic catalog of portraits of fellow incarcerated men, “Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration,” Mark Loughney scrounged what paper he could. The 725 drawings fill a wall in the Bell Gallery, at once calling attention to the humanity of the men and to their sheer numbers.
Works by incarcerated artists in prison have hope, saying, “This is who I am, this is who we are.” Those by artists outside the system examine cruelty more directly. Sable Elyse Smith’s father was imprisoned when she was 10. Her “Backbend” sculpture, made from institutional tables and chairs like those bolted to the floor in a prison visiting room, rises and bends, as if flexing to get free.
The subject of Chandra McCormick’s heartbreaking photograph “Daddy’O, The Oldest Incarcerated Man in Angola Penitentiary,” looks tender and broken. The Louisiana prison has a bloody and racist history, and Daddy’O seems to hold it all in his body and his sorrowful face.
“Marking Time” doesn’t flinch from incarceration’s horrors, but it rejoices in artists finding their voices in the face of a culture of punishment.
MARKING TIME: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration
At David Winton Bell Gallery, List Art Center, 64 College St., and Cohen Gallery, Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, 154 Angell St., Brown University, Providence, through Dec. 18. www.brown.edu/campus-life/arts/bell-gallery/exhibitions/marking-time-art-age-mass-incarceration
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.