Some of the work currently on view at the Abrons Art Center could be hanging in one of the nearby commercial galleries that dot the Lower East Side. But the point of the On The Inside exhibition isn’t the artistic execution—it’s the impulse. The exhibition, a project of initiated by Tatiana von Fürstenberg in collaboration with Black and Pink, a monthly newsletter of prisoner-generated content, presents work of LGBTQ artists who are currently incarcerated. It is a forceful demonstration of the power of artistic impulse to defy the constraints of circumstance.
Almost all the work in the exhibition is by necessity drawing—the materials available to the artists are severely limited: notebook paper, blunt pencils, ball point pen ink tubes (the outer plastic cases are deemed too dangerous to be made available to the prisoners). The inspiration owes more to tattoo art and comic art than Old Master drawings. There are a number of portraits of pop and historical icons—Marilyn Monroe, Rihanna, Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman. Several of these works depict Michael Jackson, who represents a way of being different in the world for many of the LGBTQ artists and a martyr to that difference. There are more overtly spiritual images, which center around Jesus Christ as a source of consolation and succor—although one arresting piece shows Jesus pointing a gun directly at the viewer. And there are a few works that show the natural world—forests, streams, and animals—as a source of comfort and tranquility.
Some of the most powerful images in the exhibition are self-portraits, many by transgender artists. Art is a powerful means for these artists to express a gender identity different from their sex assigned at birth. Some birth-assigned male artists portray themselves as female, or as overtly feminine men; some birth-assigned female artists portray themselves as embodying both genders. In a small, restricted area of the exhibition, there are some portraits that express a potent sexuality in complete defiance of any gender binary.
The walls of the galleries display quotes from the artists, and one reads; “My dad beat me for even thinking about art.” We don’t know much about the artists in this exhibition. We don’t know where they are from, or even where they are. We don’t know if they have any artistic training, or any art education at all. And, we shouldn’t make any correlation between the facts of their incarceration and their sexual or gender identities. What we do know is that they recognize the power of art (as the father of the quoted artist did) to express, to console, to resist, to defy, and to endure.
To send a message to an artist featured in this post, text 720 999 9922 specifying the SMS Code listed in the corresponding image caption. More information about messaging is available here.
On The Inside runs through December 18, 2016, at the Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street). To learn more about the On The Inside project, visit the project website.
—Champ Knecht, Deputy Director for Administration at The Drawing Center