Friday, January 29, 2016

Prison Obscura
Documenting life in prison at The Evergreen State College
Published in the Weekly Volcano, Jan. 28, 2016
installation shot, courtesy The Evergreen State College
Like images captured with a pinhole camera, also known as a camera obscura, the exhibition Prison Obscura at The Evergreen State College “considers this fundamental distortion that characterizes vision and viewing, how we see and don’t see the people we incarcerate, the people we put in boxes. Guiding the viewer through the visual culture of America’s prisons, the exhibit traces the contours of that box, to attempt to make sense of the dominant narratives and stereotypes that somehow justify a U.S. system now locking up people at an unprecedented rate,” as stated in a press release for the show.
Prison Obscura is the major offering among four related shows in Evergreen’s library building, each taking a look at our prisons through the lenses of cameras — in some cases actual pinhole cameras.
The first thing to meet the eye when entering the gallery is a video projection called “Proliferation” by Paul Rucker. Depending on what part of the looping video is showing, you see a single green light on a large screen, and then another and another, and then lights of other colors; the lights flash on faster and faster and begin to create a shape as they proliferate. It is a map of the United States, and what it is showing is the proliferation of prisons in our country over a 250-year history. As should be expected, it starts on the East Coast and marches westward, and the density matches the population density of the country. It is mesmerizing and frightening.
In some prisons large, fanciful landscapes printed on vinyl cover parts of the walls in visitor areas, the only areas where photographs are allowed. These idyllic landscapes hide doors and bars and locks, so when visitors take portraits of their incarcerated loved ones, the only background images to leave the prison are these landscapes. Artist Alyse Emdur has documented these. These landscapes are hung on the gallery walls, and on a table top resting on two sawhorses are collections of portraits of prisoners taken in front of these backdrops. It is so sweet and so false.
On one wall of the gallery is an array of harshly lighted, black-and-white photographs of prisoners as part of a nine-year project by Robert Gumpert in which he photographed prisoners and asked them to tell a story, which he recorded. The audio recordings, unedited and uncensored, accompany the images.
One of the more striking displays is a set of six pinhole photos taken by girls at Remann Hall Detention Center in Tacoma, a project coordinated by TESC faculty member Steve Davis. The images are fuzzy, soft focus, slightly distorted, and exceedingly sad. Facing this is a wall of portraits of kids in Maple Lane and Remann.
In a separate but related show downstairs in the Photoland Gallery are more photos by Davis. A large-scale photograph at the entry to the gallery area pictures a wall of heavy, locked cell doors numbered 10 through 14, each with a small window. A face looks out from behind all but one of the windows. This image made me shiver.
On the back side of this panel is a life-size black-and-white photo of two teenage boys in chains and locks. They are like men in chain gangs 50 years ago, except they are contemporary and they are kids.
One of the more striking images in this set of photos is of a girl from Remann Hall holding a plaster-cast mask in front of her face. There is no wall label to explain. Is it a cast of her face? Is she holding it up to hide or to show off her work? This was the last picture I saw before leaving the gallery, and I left wondering about this young girl. What had she done to get herself locked up and what is going to happen to her? What about all the others? How many of them have been wrongly incarcerated, and what is going to become of them?
These are not feel-good art exhibitions. They are shows that should be seen.
Prison Obscura, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tue.,Thurs., Fri.; 1:30-5 p.m. Wed., through March 2, The Evergreen State College Gallery, 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Library 1st floor, Olympia, 360.867.5125

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