The year 2012 was a turning point for Gilberto Rivera. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Brooklyn, the former graffiti artist had been incarcerated in the U.S. federal prison system for nearly two decades. He had been regularly subjected to “diesel therapy,” in which prison authorities bus detainees to different facilities across the country to break their ability to form close relationships. Rivera had always sought to make the most of things, learning new artistic techniques from incarcerated mentors wherever he ended up: impressionism at the Lompoc federal prison in California, oil painting at Leavenworth, Kansas, and ceramics at Allenwood, Pennsylvania. But after an altercation with a guard at Fairton, New Jersey, he’d had enough. Rivera was outraged, and needed a new form capable of expressing it.
An Institutional Nightmare was the result. Resembling a rugged, otherworldly landscape viewed from above, the three-dimensional mixed-media collage is made of Rivera’s torn prison uniform, a drop cloth, prison commissary reports, newspaper, acrylic paint, and floor wax. Rivera’s anger seems to well up out of it: the uniform, a drab brown vortex stiffened with wax and paste, writhes around the pale yellow cloth, its cheap synthetic insulation spilling over into a frothy sea of blue and red. He could have been punished just for making it, as prison rules prohibit the appropriation and destruction of state property. Yet Rivera felt it was a chance worth taking, not only as a way of asserting his identity as an artist, but also of critiquing the system of mass incarceration in the United States, which currently ensnares more than 2.3 million people.
Rivera is just one of more than thirty-five artists featured in Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, a revelatory new group show on view at MoMA PS1 in New York through April 4. The massive assemblage of drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures, video installations, collage, and photography is the result of more than a decade of research by guest curator Nicole R. Fleetwood, a professor of American studies and art history at Rutgers. She’s also the author of an accompanying scholarly book, the most comprehensive survey of contemporary art made by incarcerated people to date. An unabashed prison abolitionist and advocate for incarcerated people, Fleetwood has witnessed firsthand the injustice and violence of the U.S. prison system, especially the generational trauma it inflicts on communities of color (and on members of her own family). As a result, the show is anything but a facile, feel-good celebration of art as moral redemption or imaginary transcendence. Instead, it’s didactic in the best sense of the term. It teaches visitors—most of whom have never been to a jail and do not know a single incarcerated person—how to see the cruelty the prison system tries to hide, and how to think expansively about a world in which prisons no longer exist.
Marking Time begins and ends with one of the most accessible genres of prison art, portraiture. As Fleetwood reminds us, the technique has a long tradition (as well as a prestigious pedigree) in Western aesthetics. Incarcerated in his late teens, George Morton used his nine years in federal prison to study the techniques of the Old Masters, eventually earning a coveted spot at the Florence Academy of Art and winning its prize for “best portrait of the year” in 2016. Mars, an arresting charcoal drawing of a young Black woman rendered with photographic precision, is easily the most technically accomplished work in the show.