Nicole Fleetwood grew up in a small, poor town in southwest Ohio, and saw friends, neighbors, and family members go to prison, some for large crimes, most for small ones. She kept in touch with her relatives while they were incarcerated, trading back and forth pictures and hand-made greeting cards. Growing up, she kept those mementos tucked away. Close to her heart, but out of sight.
But then she started hanging those pieces on her walls. She brought her cousins home with her, in a way the legal system couldn’t prevent. Fleetwood said that she refused “to have them invisible behind prison walls.” Making that change in her own life led Fleetwood to begin researching the art that gets made in prison, and that lead her to curate “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” an exhibition newly arrived at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 site in Queens, New York.
Every moment that passes in prison is a “measurement of punishment,” according to Fleetwood. “You wake up, you’re being punished, you’re being punished, you make art, you’re being punished.”
The art she collected from 44 artists includes multimedia sculpture, charcoal drawings, crayons, photograph. Perhaps one of the most striking pieces is a simple collage – just a few snippets of magazine pages on gray paper make a shadow figure with vivid features peering out through rifts in thick smoke. This is Locked in a Dark Calm, by Tameca Cole, a study on anger and on personhood. Fleetwood chose it to open the exhibition – it’s the first thing you see as you walk in.
Also of note is Pyrrhich Defeat, a collection of over 600 pencil portraits, most the size of playing cards, done by Mark Loughney. The sheer amount of time those hundreds of detailed faces represent can be seen in the progression of his skills from one corner of the room to the other. Loughney thinks these 600 represent less than half of the portraits he’s done while incarcerated.
Marking Time. Making art. These works and the artists who made them deserve to be seen.
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