Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 12, 2021
Nicole R. Fleetwood Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration Exh. cat. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020. 352 pp.; 95 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780674919228)
MoMA PS1, Queens, September 17, 2020–April 5, 2021

There is no inside/outside when it comes to the carceral state. Guest curated by Nicole R. Fleetwood at MoMA PS1 and accompanied by a catalog published by Harvard University Press, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration reckons with how incarceration transforms lives and how, under and against its violent conditions, people make art as a tactic of survival. Incarceration dismantles communities, disproportionately Black and Latinx ones; enforces mass caging; and disenfranchises people long after their sentences end. It is a world-defining system, so much so that it requires new forms of knowledge—beyond art history’s limited gaze—to meaningfully engage art making within it. Fleetwood coined the phrase “carceral aesthetics” to expand the discipline, defining the term as art produced under “conditions of unfreedom” (25). With work by currently and formerly incarcerated artists, as well as others impacted by the expansive carceral state, Marking Time demonstrates the staggering breadth of carceral aesthetics and the inescapable fact that incarceration stretches far beyond prison walls.

Three conditions—penal matter, penal time, and penal space—help define carceral aesthetics. Penal matter addresses the restricted availability of and access to goods; penal time describes temporality marked by prison sentences, parole, and monitoring; and penal space encompasses architectures of imprisonment and surveillance. The exhibition visualized these themes as it unfolded across MoMA PS1’s south galleries. Fleetwood mixed media throughout the rooms, interweaving works by incarcerated and nonincarcerated artists; this curatorial decision gestured toward the shared reality of the carceral state and, more crucially, the relationships—between fellow incarcerated people and with their loved ones—that surpass it.

Collaboration, community, and intimate care marked the exhibition’s start. A small room off the entry gallery contained over six hundred graphite portraits of incarcerated people, produced by Mark Loughney for his ongoing series Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration (2014–present), a model of mutual recognition and a counter to carceral isolation. Drawn in twenty-minute sessions on sheets of paper sourced wherever Loughney can find them, the portraits capture their sitters in calm, intimate postures lifted from the terrors of mass caging. “The irony,” says Loughney of his monumental series, which spanned all four gallery walls, “is that 500 faces is not even a drop in the bucket of our 2.4 million brothers, mothers, sisters, and fathers that are locked away in prisons in our country” (135).

Resources provided by prison art programs (if available) are scarce, so artists turn to alternate means and material experiments. The third gallery demonstrated this striking ingenuity and the various ways incarcerated artists transform penal matter. Dean Gillispie’s Americana miniatures make innovative use of the capitalist-carceral leftovers available to him. Gillispie painstakingly built the miniatures—including an Airstream dinette with tea-bag curtains and a burger shack clad in cigarette-pack foil—in his cell, transforming popsicle sticks, soda cans, and other materials into immaculate structures arranged as a makeshift Main Street. Nearby was Gilberto Rivera’s An Institutional Nightmare (2012), which collages prison reports, uniforms, wax, paint, and debris into a knotted, twisting composition. Covering the next gallery’s curved wall on a larger scale was Jessie Krimes’s Apokaluptein16389067 (2010–13). Krimes, a collaborator and friend of Rivera’s, pieced together a Boschian scene of heaven, earth, and hell on thirty-nine prison bedsheets. From a cloud-dotted sky, angel-like figures float and fall toward an underworld populated by auction house announcements, fashion campaigns, idealized white women, and other pop-culture clippings. Using a labor-intensive newsprint transfer process, he reworked the bedsheets—produced by prison workers’ labor through UNICOR—to astonishing result. The work’s compositional coherence is all the more impressive given that Krimes could only construct it in fragments, covertly mailing each bedsheet to friends so it could be assembled outside prison walls.

For artists in Marking Time who are impacted by the carceral state but not currently or formerly incarcerated, penal time, space, and matter still figure centrally in their practices and similarly define their lives. In the next gallery, two six-pronged sculptures, Daniel McCarthy Clifford’s The Leavenworth Project (2018) and Sable Elyse Smith’s Pivot II (2019), filled the room’s center, deploying the standard typologies of prison trays and stools, respectively. Clifford stacked trays into a larger-than-human-size, jack-like arrangement, and Smith distorted the stools to similar effect, heightening the antagonism of their design. Their color, an unexceptional sky blue, conjures for Smith the hue of the California prison attire her father, who received a life sentence when the artist was ten, wears daily—the blue she cannot wear to visit him, the blue of jazz and musicality, of being Black in the United States, of video screens, open sky, and the mural expanses painted on prison visiting room walls. This blue is what Fleetwood calls a “penal hue,” a color that undergoes violent transformation when one exists in the carceral state. For Smith and countless others, these materials decorate and define the carceral landscape.

Portraiture ranks among the most popular genres of carceral aesthetics. Whether self-made or commissioned, drawn by hand on paper lunch bags or taken by cameras in prison visiting rooms, portraits figure centrally in Marking Time, signaling the crucial power of representation to return dignity and self-possession to sitters. Portraits also counter the legacy of weaponized and racialized portraiture—mug shots, prison IDs, wanted signs, ethnographic photography—that criminalizes and constrains its subjects. In the following gallery, Billy Sell’s arresting pencil-on-paper Self-Portrait (2013) hung in a darkened alcove. The artist, who died by suicide while incarcerated, depicted himself with a solemn gaze locked on the viewer, a moment of focused attention under carceral limitations; adjacent was correspondence with his art teacher, Treacy Ziegler, that demonstrated the essentiality of community and the excruciating hardship of carceral isolation. In portraiture, obscuring oneself can be an act of self-possession, too; in the next room, Larry Cook’s series of saturated digital photographs, The Visiting Room, foregrounded subjects who turn from the camera, posed against idealized backdrops—a dusk-lit cityscape, an ivy-wrapped terrace—painted in prison photography studios. The for-profit studios, where incarcerated people and their visitors can stand together for snapshots, allow subjects the momentary illusion of freedom in the world outside. Across the gallery, in Rowan Renee’s No Spirit for Me (2019), dozens of hanging, diaphanous copies of police records from their father’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment form a different type of portrait. The installation, an evidence room constructed with metal-and-chain armatures, spatializes the bureaucratic paperwork that marks subjects across penal time and limits them after their release.

It is notable that, across the exhibition and catalog, Fleetwood does not engage a binary of guilt and innocence or of “good” and “bad”—unsettling moralistic associations that viewers might bring to the works. Marking Time does not suggest that creating art makes anyone more or less deserving of freedom, and for the most part, wall texts did not discuss an artist’s record. Rather, Fleetwood allows subjects to speak for themselves. This was particularly evident in the final gallery, in Sara Bennett’s series The Bedroom Project (2017–19), comprising photographs of formerly incarcerated women in their personal spaces. In an act of self-definition, the women wrote captions below their photographs, describing the emancipatory act of creating one’s own space. In the same gallery, however, stood American Artist’s school desks militarized with ballistic shields and Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter’s harrowing video Ain’t I a Woman (2018), in which she reflects on the “womb-to-prison” pipeline and her experience giving birth while shackled—making clear that, even after emancipation for some, incarceration remains deeply cyclical, targeting and disenfranchising communities of color from the start.

Marking Time looks first to incarcerated people and their loved ones, but it also addresses art history. Art made in and about prisons is vital to contemporary culture. Why, asked Fleetwood in the wall text, has it been fundamentally foresworn in academia and “excluded from established art institutions?” In the searing catalog—a patchwork of personal biography, art historical revisionism, and close readings—Fleetwood addresses these failures as systematic and methodological, expanding the exhibition’s theoretical groundings on the role of prison art collectives, carceral photography, structural isolation, portraiture, and “practices of belonging” (231). Fleetwood also considers the troubling relation between conditions of incarceration and art institutions. Art history is and always has been embedded in the hegemonic production of race, taste, and aesthetics, a process designed to equate whiteness with cultural and artistic value. This not only promotes the lazy and racist mischaracterization of prison art as folk, self-taught, or outsider art but also represents an inability of the field to conceptualize art made through unfreedom. Thus, Marking Time offers a new starting point for art history. It also makes unavoidable the fact that contemporary art institutions have not historically provided safe havens for prison art or criminalized communities. Museums remain heavily policed, and the inequity of many institutions’ staffing, collection and acquisition priorities, trustees, and exhibitions only serves to amplify racial injustice. Marking Time creates a critical break in this legacy—but the financial entwining of museums and mass caging still constitutes, across the country, a largely unresolved crisis.

Art provides a radical means of communication, expression, collaboration, and survival, but it will not end prisons on its own. Marking Time, positioned toward a future without human caging, recognizes that until prison abolition there will continue to be art made under the conditions of incarceration. With carceral aesthetics as a generous start, Marking Time makes pointedly and painfully clear the need for art historians and institutions to catch up to the practices of artists living under the brutality of mass incarceration. It also makes obvious that art making in prison is not freedom; abolition is.

Quinn Schoen
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, The Graduate Center, CUNY