Jesse Krimes, whom I’ve written about here, is one of the very few artists in history to have had major museum exhibitions before ever showing in a commercial gallery. But after showing at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris; the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery at Drexel University; and the Zimmerli Art Museum, Krimes’ work is now on view at Burning In Water Gallery, New York. Titled “Marking Time In America: The Prison Works 2009-2013,” the exhibition features the series of works Krimes created while serving time on drug-related charges from 2009-2013.
Those works are testament not only to Krimes’ strength of will and creative determination, but to the metaphorical depth of his art. “Purgatory,” for instance, is a series made of some 300 small slivers of prison-issued soap, onto which Krimes transferred images of faces from his local newspaper. To preserve the soap pieces, which are only about one inch square, and to facilitate getting them out of prison (he mailed them to a friend for safekeeping), Krimes sheltered them in playing cards swiped from the decks issued to prisoners as a form of “entertainment.” Using a battery wire sharpened on the floor of his cell, the artist undertook the painstaking process of slicing a small square from each card, stacking the cards together, and inserting the soap, like a jewel, into the setting he’d created. In total, the series used some 6000 cards; the entire series is on view at Burning In Water, marching across several walls of the gallery in an even, but haunting rhythm.
The effect is complex: the colors of the cards are bright and cheerful, but the faces embedded in them are pale and faded, ghostly images that reflect the complexity of human interaction: these are, after all, the negative transfers of prints of photographs of people we don’t even know. How far are we, really, from the people that we see? How well do we ever know them? How distant is the image that we identify from the person it depicts? How trapped are we, in the play of things, the games that hold us all in place?
Also on view is a re-creation of Apokaluptein: 16389067 (the title references his prison ID number), a work he created using prison bed sheets supplied surreptitiously by a fellow prisoner who worked in the prison laundry. As he described it to me in an interview some time ago:
“I worked on Apokaluptein:16389067 twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for three years straight, both in my cell and in the recreation art room. I used hair gel and a plastic spoon to transfer the images cut out of the New York Times, leaving the inverse image inscribed within the fabric of the prison sheet after I peeled away the original newsprint image … Each image transfer would take about 30 minutes to complete, the piece is made up of thousands of transfers that I would then blend and enhance through color pencil and graphite hand-drawn extensions. Each individual panel would take about a month to finish.”
Even in this reduced-size recreation of the work, Apokaluptein 16389067 is a mesmerizing and overwhelming tableau. Figures, both real and imaginary, dance, swirl, tumble, fly, fight, cross and re-cross over a fantastical landscape, a surrealistic world composed of superimposed and interrelated images, each sheet entire to itself and yet an intrinsic part of the enormous mural that is the whole (the original spanned a full 40 feet at its completion: the scaled-down version at Burning In Water covers an entire full wall of the gallery, and is overwhelming both in its massiveness and the intimate intricacy of its detail). The stories it tells invite questions about scale – both visual and sociological (is “bigger” better? More powerful?); about commercial materialism (references to Chanel and Ralph Lauren, and a timely portrait of Donald Trump); about context and place and where things fit and fit in – or don’t.
But the works that grabbed my attention – perhaps because they were new to me – were the “Marking Time” series of “Masterworks.” Originally created as pencil-drawn copies of Old Master paintings Krimes found in the art history books of a fellow inmate, these have now been re-conceptualized and hung superimposed over pages from Krimes’ own, well-read and well-worn copy of Foucault’s Discipline & Punish. A philosophical study of the history and meaning of imprisonment that views the prison system as a part of a sociological power hierarchy, the 1975 book has had an enormous influence on Krimes’ work. Here, too, among these masterfully re-created pencil renditions, he has replaced the faces of figures – like God and Adam in Michelangelo’s “Creation” from the Sistine Ceiling – with transfers of faces cut from newspapers: anonymous people, people with their own stories, people who are part of this deeply unsacred and terrene reality.
The issue of relationships between reality and art is an obvious element of these works, but so, too, are questions of displacement and identity. To this, in the new re-staging of these drawings, is added the complexity of Foucault’s ideas, and the observations Krimes made in the margins of the book as he read through it. Underscored words and phrases couple the images with text, such as “This moment” “point of emergence of the formation of art,” “a moment when ‘the fever of revolution fired the imagination of all.”
Here, too, as in all of the works Krimes created in these years, there is an unexpected interaction between materials and genres: paper and soap; mug shots from a newspaper and the face of the King of Hearts; a Warhol Mao, a Campbell’s Soup can, an ad for Rolex Watches, transferred to the stolen sheets of a federal penitentiary. These are not, in other words, just pretty pictures, cute craft projects made by an artist who went to prison. They invite – demand – analysis and contemplation, rich as they are in metaphor and political expression.
Which is why Burning In Water now plans a second exhibition of Krimes’ newer, post-prison works. “This was really to introduce him,” Barry Malin, the gallery’s owner told me, “for people to understand his biography, his ideas” – and to know him beyond his identity as a prison artist. As Krimes put it in our previous interview,
“I do not want to be placed in a reductive box. I have been in one for 6 years and just focusing on my story while losing the complexity and nuance of my work makes me feel like I am still in metaphorical prison. I am an artist. My work certainly deals with incarceration and it is important to acknowledge this but not dwell on it. My work is not ‘just’ about my prison experience; instead my artistic investigations explore a much more mature interest in systems and hierarchies, disentangling complex value systems, and in the human condition.”
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