Approaching a darkened room at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, visitors will encounter a steel prison door with a small, barred window. Behind the window is the image of a man peering through the bars, his blank expression in sharp contrast to the gang and prison tattoos covering his face.
The juxtaposition of the man and the unyielding steel comprises an installation created by sculptor Leslie Diane Davis and her brother, painter Gregg Stone. It is a central work in “Incarceration” an exhibition that examines incarceration and is scheduled to run at OCCCA in Santa Ana through March 11.
“Solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Many prisoners lose mental capacity in the first 20 days. The longer the confinement, the slimmer the chance of recovery and rehabilitation,” said Davis, of Laguna Beach, who along with 40 fellow artists use art to probe a system where minorities receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts, the moral travesty of the death penalty and the treatment of juvenile offenders who are often misclassified as adults.
For example, Sandra Jones Campbell, another Laguna Beach artist, became
galvanized by a picture of a child in a jail cell and illustrated the pipeline from inner city schools to imprisonment with her painting “Grade Three.” It is a compositional juxtaposition of a third grade class photo and a boy placed outside of the group, faceless and destined to become an insider in a different sort of class.
On the other end of the spectrum, an assemblage by Santa Ana artist Greg Price speaks volumes in its simplicity. Price has assembled long white strips of white glass horizontally rather than vertically and bowed their center. It suggests that one only escapes from behind bars through the power of hope or imagination.
“I have curated the show on criminal justice reform to honor Bryan Stevenson’s efforts to make the public aware of the present destruction of our justice system,” said Davis. She first became aware of Stevenson as a founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, of Montgomery, Ala., and author of “Just Mercy.”
Stevenson, a 1995 MacArthur grant recipient, pointed out the exponential increase in the U.S. prison population from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million in 2012, the time of his TED talk. He also pointed out inequities in a justice system that better serves the rich and guilty than the poor and innocent, how poverty is the opposite of justice and that the current treatment of black prisoners harkens back to slavery.
“In cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., 50 percent of black men between ages of 18 to 30 are in prison or on parole….” Stevenson said.
Stevenson, along with other voices, blames the war on drugs and three strikes laws for the drastic increase in prison population. The U.S. comprises roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners, according to statistics cited in “13th,” the Oscar-nominated documentary produced in 2016 by Netflix about the U.S. prison boom. The film points to a more insidious reason for a burgeoning prison population: the rise of privately operated prisons and the lobbying juggernaut behind them, which advocates for criminalization of nonviolent offenses that largely impact minority communities.
According to the ACLU, for profit prison companies house 7 percent of state prisoners and 18 percent in federal lock-ups in 2015.
Davis has been known for her glass and mixed media work on medical subjects. Her brother is a representational painter with inspirational roots in the barrios of Tijuana. The work of another Laguna artist and the exhibit co-curator, Pat Sparkuhl, often contains strong elements of social commentary.
It’s Sparkuhl’s selection of “Prison Art,” drawings by Oscar Campos, that packs the most powerful punch here. Rendered entirely in ballpoint pen on large white sheets of paper, they present the sexual fantasies of a man warped by protracted confinement. Cholas sporting pneumatic busts and derrieres with their armed macho companions prevail.
While even marginal feminists might cringe, Sparkuhl explains that these are results of literally arrested development, machismo driven fantasies of a 24-year inmate whose last contact with women took place at age 15 when he was convicted of shooting a rival gang member in San Elizario, Tex. A written account of Campos’ life is part of the exhibit and a must-read.
Sparkuhl believes the show reveals how a fear-based society over-reacts with punitive policies, but can potentially embrace consequences that are more proportional to the crimes. “The fundamental question arises over who we are as a society that professes compassion and redemption as sustaining values.”
If you go: “Incarceration,” Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 N. Sycamore St., Santa Ana. Until March 11; noon to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Free. 714 667-1517
Panel discussion, March 4, 2-4 p.m.
Moderator Leslie Diane Davis.
Christine L. Montonna, Collaborative Courts Foundation of OC
Pat Sparkuhl, artist
Mando Yearwood Cordova, gang enforcement detective retired.
Judge Joe T. Perez
Public Defender Jeff Ellias
Fabian Debora, director of substance abuse services, Homeboy Industries.
Moderators: Claudia Ramirez and Dylan Thompson.
Abraham Medina, Ignacio; Boys and Men of Color
Christina Fallow, Ellen, Jan Meslin; Friends of Detainees/Civic
Joey Linnert, Alyesha Wise, Matthew Cuban; New Earth Life
Nancy Alcala; 360 Turn Around
Valerie Amezcua; Santa Ana Unified School District trustee
Spoken Word: Flow/Fluent Words of Love, 5:30-6 p.m.