I wrote a story for this week's Scene about an exhibit of art made by prisoners on death row. That's tricky territory — like I say in the review, a lot of these inmates have been convicted of truly heinous acts, but I didn't write the story about that. To me, it's much more interesting to focus on how these men have used art as a form of refusal — not for their crimes but for their status as somehow less than human. I have a feeling that not everyone is going to agree with me.
The opening for the exhibit is 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 21, at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Gallery. Some photographs of the work, including some of the signage created by the prisoners' families that I think might be particularly incendiary, are below.
More dramatic still is Harold Wayne Nichols' piece, a cell representation that required a mirror panel. Because bringing a mirror into prison was out of the question, Nichols himself has never seen the finished product. One look at the piece, though, and you know its inclusion is essential.
The cell's walls enclose the piece from all four sides. The only way to see inside is to peer through a small rectangular slot (a "pie flap," in prison slang). What's inside are cheerful family photographs in an asymmetrical grid. Present in that grid, however, is the pie flap you're looking through — with your own eyes staring back. The photographs are not on the opposite wall, but reflected against a mirror like a funhouse trick. The disorienting effect of finding your own presence on the inside is startling, eerie and ultimately devastating.