NEW YORK, NY.-
The Collective comprises seven artists who center criminal justice reform in their practices, aligned by their shared experiences of incarceration and their commitment to supporting artists who have overcome similar backgrounds. The Collective began with Owens commandeering a small recreation room at FCI Fairton Correctional Facility as an art studio where he met fellow artists Jesse Krimes and Gilberto Rivera. A bond was quickly formed, ideas were traded, and a pact was made to continue their art careers upon coming home. Since 2014 the collective has grown to now include Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter aka Isis Tha Saviour, Tameca Cole, Russell Craig, and James Yaya Hough, who had formed their own networks during their respective incarcerations, and find themselves now committed to changing how society views formerly incarcerated artists, a theme that permeates all of their work.
Through the artists collaborations, they have founded networks of support, such as the Right of Return Fellowship founded by Jesse Krimes and Russell Craig, as well as garnering encouragement and advocacy from Agnes Gunds Art for Justice Fund at the Ford Foundation. The work of Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwoodher decade of research, seminal book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, and subsequent PS1 exhibitionfurther established these artists and expanded their network. Now, as each artist builds their career independently, they remain bonded through the mutual experiences of incarceration and, more significantly, determination: one anothers Chosen Family.
Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter began at an early age to emulate and study Isis, the Egyptian goddess of healing and motherhood, an alignment cemented when the artist underwent the traumatic experience of giving birth while incarcerated. Officially adopting Isis Tha Saviour as her alter ego, Baxter went on to raise her son while becoming a successful hip hop artist, whose music videos are celebrated in the fields of entertainment and fine art alike. On view at Martos is Fall of America (2020), in which Baxter collages historical and contemporary footage of oppression and uprising, police violence and protesta three-minute montage of the conditions that have perpetuated from slavery to lead to our current, simmering moment. Baxters rap similarly enumerates the systemic injustices that threaten the countrys cohesion. In a quiet, yet similarly urgent departure, Baxter performs a poignant embodiment of Isis in Consecration to Mary (2021) a series of intimately scaled tin type cases. Following her research into Thomas Eakins exploitative photograph of an anonymous, pre-pubescent black girl posed nude, Baxter created a series of photos inserting her own, protective presence over the exposed child, covering the girls body, and rescuing her from isolation.
Tameca Coles works on paper harness the range of portrayals of black bodies in the media, her composites alternately redemptive, cathartic, meditative and celebratory. At times, as in Open Wounds (2021) the technique of collage serves to compress history and emphasize the historical continuity of racial violence. In Open Wounds, atop a roiling, charcoal ground, Cole applies a hand ripped collage of the infamous image known as Whipped Peter, the Civil War era photograph of a
formerly enslaved black man, who stoically turns his back to the camera to reveal excessive keloid scarring on his back from whipping. Peters head is represented by a silhouette, over which Cole has affixed with the eyes of Tupac Shakur, his right hand clasping a microphone in performance. Eliding two famous portrayals of black men in the media, Cole captures several contradictionsthe appreciation of black culture amidst the ignorance of black pain; the power of mass media to galvanize as well as fetishize; and the various guises of oppression (Shakurs fame and success were beset by police brutality, incarceration, and gun violence, which tragically ended his life). Also on view is Asexual Accessories, a seductive, large scale collage that isolates erogenous featureslips, abs, feet placed next to a phallic abstractionalongside the luxury signifier of quilted Gucci patterning, applied through graphite rubbing and grafted collage. Equating infatuation with superfluity, Coles alluring work ultimately telegraphs how deeper bonds elude surface representation.
Russell Craig illuminates painful histories and startling political realities through the deployment of pop culture narratives, his references ranging from Marvel comics to The Wizard of Oz. Louis Vuitton (2021) is painted on a surface of luxury bags, both in knockoff and authentic form. A section of the surface is peeled away to reveal a rough patch of white. Tethered to this peeling patch is a small toy dogrecalling the moment in The Wizard of Ozwhere Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal an old man in a booth, operating the illusion of Oz with gears and levers. With this gesture, Craig connects power, optics, and race. To further demonstrate this triadic relationship, Craig paints his warped and horrified self-portrait into the helmet of Marvels Mysterio: a supervillain from the Spiderman comics, whose powers are derived from his ability to generate thoroughly convincing mirages and destabilize the heros reality.
Using banal, administrative material to showcase the benign tools of insidious penal codes, James Yaya Houghs darkly satirical drawings literalize the for-profit prison industrial complex. In Houghs drawings, uniform and featureless bodies are fed through machinery, bound up in rope, their anatomy captured in systems of production, consumption, and even sexual humiliation, sometimes at the hands of a recurring, voluptuous female character. Hough draws in ballpoint pen, on bureaucratic paperwork that testify to the monotony of carceral time, including cafeteria menus and documents used to process an incarcerated persons daily activities.
Jared Owens employs a symbology that describes the spatial conditions of incarceration, or what Nicole Fleetwood has described as penal space, using specific color and imagery to outline the unspoken methods through which prisons contain and control. Cadmium orange appears throughout Owens canvases, a bright color that demarcates restricted zones within the generally sedative, muted tones of prison (additionally, cadmiums chemical flammability renders it contraband). Owens also correlates incarceration and slavery through an examination of architectural parallels, noting the similarities between the infamous Brookes slave ship imprints, and the layout of Fairton Correctional Facility, each designed to maximally constrain and objectify the populations they hold.
Quilts by Jesse Krimes symbolically suture the fractured constellation of sites that comprise penal space, interrogating ideas of justice, safety, time, community and return. Fleetwood reminds her reader in Marking Time that penal time is not only constituted by the architectural codes of prison itself, but also by the external locations impacted by incarceration. She describes homes which lose family members, their remaining members emotionally, financially, and spiritually depleted; as well as the relationship of carceral space to the broader public imaginary: the existence of prison itself is fixed by age old stereotypes, while actual facilities are isolated from the general population. Krimes quilts embody a process of co-creation and dialogue from both prison and non-incarcerated communities. In the works on view, Krimes integrates imagery produced by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, folding into the imagery further responses and reflections on social justice from people employed in the carceral system, as well as members of the Amish Mennonite faith in small town, central Pennsylvania. Krimes draws on regionally specific visual elements and techniques, which reference a shared social fabric and have personal resonance for the artist as a formerly incarcerated person with generations of family in Lancaster County, PA, where he was arrested, indicted, and sent to federal prison.
In Gilberto Riveras paintings, the artist wraps allegorical images of innocence and justice in swirls of loaded collageRiveras imagery includes Puerto Rican civil rights leaders Pedro Albizu Campos, Lolita Lebrón, and Filiberto Ojeda Ríos; phrases both cautionary and hopeful; cell blocks and faces behind bars. Collectively, Riveras imagery reflects the centuries-long struggle sometimes referred to as the arc of justice. Rivera focuses on children and women as the subjects of his paintings, indicating that children witness, learn from and inherit the catastrophes of the present, and women often bear their emotional burden. (While women represent less than a tenth of the incarcerated population, they are also the fastest growing demographic in prisons, and many are incarcerated for acts committed in self-defense against domestic partners). This is America #002 is bisected by a painted strip of caution tape: above it, a young boy meditates amidst a churn of chaotic imagery; below, his pants are orange and his shoes laceless, signaling his risk of incarceration and overall the environmental factors that can funnel a child into the carceral system.
Together, the artists in The Collective: Chosen Family illuminate obscured histories, challenge dominant narratives, and practice passionate activism through their work, demonstrating the power of art to heal, educate, and galvanize.