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“The Pencil Is Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists” at the Drawing Center

More than 140 drawings spanning more than two centuries are on exhibit in this remarkable show. The circumstances of the artists’ incarceration vary according to reason for capture, from political activism to simple theft, and according to site, from conventional prison conditions to the odd confinement of Japanese-Americans in a racetrack on the West Coast, as happened to the artist Ruth Azawara. Politics play a major role--we see a piece created by Courbet, who was jailed for his support of the radical Paris Commune in 1871. It is likely that these drawings, not so very different at all from drawings made under gentler circumstances, nonetheless played a needed role of imaginative emancipation for the artist under duress at the time of his or her imprisonment. I have seen artwork by imprisoned artists before, and usually, they are raw, unskilled fantasies, some of them oriented toward an eros they have been denied in jail. But this is different; the drawings by Courbet, Hubert Robert, Azawara, and Hans Bellmer are highly achieved works of art and, regularly (but not always) free of overt and conspicuous suffering. It looks like the practice of creativity for the artists in this show--and for incarcerated artists generally--enabled them to bring idealizing motifs to the fore, thus staying free from the appalling mental and physical squalor of their surroundings (but it also true that the depiction of jail surroundings is evident in more than a few of the show’s works; the way we live is important to the way we think). Usually we associate writers more closely with governmental offense, since writing, being a determinedly human activity more than difficult to turn into abstraction, has been closely associated with political expression for centuries. 

We have to remember, too, that the artists in “The Pencil Is Key” were jailed not so much for what they expressed as for what they believed or even simply for being who they were; usually, the art they made, unlike a writer’s political texts, was not considered an actionable offense (but it also true more than a few drawings in the show stem from men and women who spoke out against the regime encircling them).  Whatever the motives they brought to their work may have been, most of the art of what we see is of a nature that would make it hard to associate the image with an overtly defiant politics or imprisonable treason. It needs to be said that the suffering of politically committed painters doesn’t change--there is work made by artist protesting both the right and the left; art of the Shoah is on exhibit, as is much more recent work by Mainland Chinese dissidents. If only the left could exclusively claim the high road! But this isn’t true--postcards from the Russian gulags make it clear that the communists there attended to dissent with as much brutality as in fascist states. In the art world, which superficially asserts a left-wing rhetoric, this is hard to acknowledge, but progressive people everywhere need to recognize that the impulse to control the dissident occurs across the spectrum of political affiliations. 

The technical ability evidenced in the work on exhibition ranges from the exquisite, as seen in the late 19th-century French drawings by Robert and Daumier; to the schematically naive, as seen in the beautiful but untutored works on paper by Native American artists; to the raw, expressionist, but untrained work of prisoners in the most recent works in the show. This has little influence on the impact of the show itself; it is a determined, and successful, attempt to present the imagistic results of imaginations behind bars. The social circumstances surrounding these works are sufficiently damaging as to push the measure of each work’s success toward the margins. Yet it is also important that we recognize that the works have been made not only by inhabitants of the lower depths, but also by politically committed, successful artists, for whom a political issue was important even than their freedom. For whatever reasons, authoritarian governments come down hard on the autonomous opinions of artists, whose independence of expression offers a voice of reason in the face of harsh constraints. But criticism does not always happen; think of movements in art devoted to those in control--for example, Russia’s Socialist Realism, a movement determined to monumentalize the peasant and worker. Yet, usually, art and writing fight back, speak truth to power. What is interesting about “the Pencil Is Key” is the extent to which the artists touch upon conventional themes: portraits of friends, interior studies of their rooms, studies of solar eclipses, and idealized landscapes. 

So the work cannot be grouped under a single umbrella. Instead, this art is, like all art, sharply different from the other works in the show. In the drawing by Azza Abo Rebieh, of Nayfeh (2016), we see a sensitive treatment of a young woman, also an inmate in a detention facility--the woman’s hair cascades down the right side of her head, and her gaze is direct and clear. While the drawing is conventional, the circumstances surrounding it are not; Nayfeh belongs to a mostly anonymous, but deeply important underground--a group of people who keep the smooth machineries of the status quo from taking over completely. Miné Okubo, a Japanese-American artist of high skill and deep empathy, was evident in two rubbed charcoal on paper drawings, on of a single figure with arms raised, and the other of a mother bending over her child. The works are profoundly emotional, to the point of being tragic, without succumbing to rhetoric or sentiment. In the first, a head looks back at us, its expression somehow a combination of damage and a compassion those responsible for the internment camps did not deserve. The second drawing is a classic expression of maternal affection, although the thick black stripes composing the picture, and the complex demeanor of the mother’s face do not argue of a sanguine point of view.

Inevitably, in a show such as “The Pencil Is Key,” art from the Shoah, the Nazi extermination camps, comes into view. Halina Olomucki’s drawings render the agony of Jewish people’s experience so movingly, it is difficult to regard them even now, some four generations after the end of the war. The artist belonged to a non-observant family, living in Warsaw, but were placed in the camps; the two drawings, both made some time between 1939 and 1942, reduce suffering to its most unbearable condition. In The Woman and the Agony,  we see an older woman in a kerchief, with cramped and twisted hands, almost on top of a man crawling in the dust. The simple drawings emphasize both the emotional and physical torment of two people whose lives have been brought to nothing by genocide. In The Prayer, a man sits on the ground, his knees bent to his chest. The figure’s hands grasp his kneecaps, while his head, resting on an impossibly narrow neck, looks skyward--in anticipation of a freedom that more than likely would not be his fate. The emotional truthfulness of these drawings is strengthened and made veritable by their raw immediacy. The constrainment of Native Americans, into prison or reservations in Oklahoma during the final quarter of the 19th century, after an outbreak of hostilities named  is also depicted by Howling Wolf and Bear’s Heart watercolor, graphite, and color pencil drawings, which depict personal experience and cultural mythologies with naive accuracy. While the drawings tend to be a bit stiff in execution, it is also true they record the physical truths of a people entrapped within the confines of a murderous prejudice. The drawings hardly save the culture--nothing except the untroubled continuity of tribal life could do that, and this could not happen--but they do memorialize the details of their material life--their clothing, horse accouterments, etc. 

By extension and implication, some of the most moving drawings are simple interiors--pictures of the living quarters of some of the earlier artists, who are simply describing without tagging their surroundings as transparently unjust. Thus, by implication primarily are the images moving. In Robert’s compelling, and also seemingly innocent, study, called An Inmate at Saint-Lazare Prison (1794), a man in a long frock coat bends over his desk while writing. His bed is on his right, with his clothes hanging above the mattress, while before his is a door, which may or may not be barred, beyond which is a second door, which feels like it is evidence of actual incarceration. If we did not know the prisoner’s situation, the drawing might simply be seen as an interior view of a writer. Courbet’s study of two communards of Paris, done in 1871, one on a bed on the right, and the other leaning against it,  with two barred windows close to the top of the high space, is autobiographical--the artist was a supporter of the Commune de Paris and spent time in prison for his beliefs. The drawing is clearly one by a great artist, someone in sympathy with the radical times in which he lived. Courbet’s bravery was equal to his life as an artist, no matter how short-lived his moment of actual political power may have been. Moreover, the drawing does indicate how an engagé artist might openly communicate his sympathies for those who where challenging existing, usually authoritarian modes of control.

Chinese artist Kontonhuang, imprisoned in 2016 in Guangzhou for public grafitti writing, presented a series of drawings imagining a New Testament Christ in China--likely a way of transforming the militaristic, often violent life of prison in China. The four images include a radiant Christ of Chinese mien, with an aura surrounding his body, a spotlight zeroing in on the Christ figure, half in water, and an apocalyptic city landscape, with the Christ standing on the edge of a raised, unfinished highway and, above him, an apocalyptic sky in the manner of van Gogh. This call to an absolute spiritual presence is, interestingly enough, Western and not Chinese, but it does cast light on the intense need of those put away to believe in something that might relieve the pain and suffering they endured. If there is a general lesson to be learned from the remarkably various output of these artists from all over the world, it is that art has always served as a vehicle of hope by the dispossessed and the marginal. We can only wonder at the emotional tenacity of those in “The Pencil Is Key,” which makes it clear that no matter the origins of the incarceration, the wish to transcend a life behind bars is the same. Many (but not all) of these images were produced by artists in jail for political reasons, and this is why some of the images are alive with idealism--witness the drawings by Kontonhuang, the jailed Chinese artist. While a pencil and a piece of paper may not be a complete means to the psychic comfort desired, it is clear that these drawings meant a lot to those who made them. And so, by extension, should they mean a lot to us, so that we can appreciate, if not suffer in common terms, the great burden associated with a loss of freedom.


-Jonathan Goodman, January, 2020, New York

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