Survival Strategy: Jesse Krimes Takes Prison Art To A Higher Level

Marking Time in America: The Prison Works (2009-2013) is not a summer curatorial flirtation with an artist just out of Grad School. Instead, the current show at Chelsea’s Burning In Water gallery is by an artist fresh out of prison! The artist, Jesse Krimes, recently served a six-year period of incarceration. While Krimes was an artist before he was placed behind bars, his time – doing time, certainly expanded his art practice in ways they don’t teach you in school. In his own words, “After I was stripped of everything societal that made up my identity, the only thing I had left, was what was inside of me. The only thing prison couldn’t take from me was: my ability to think, create and have a positive impact.” Krimes said that it was only after incarceration that he found his true identity and power and fully realized “I am an artist”.

 The artist, Krimes (and yes that is his given name) was an Emerging Artist in Residence at Millersville University in Lancaster, PA when the United States Government indicted him in 2009. He was arrested for possession of cocaine. His first year (pre-sentencing) was spent in solitary confinement, in a maximum-security ward, confined to his cell for 23 hours a day. The series of work he completed during that year is called, not surprisingly, ‘Purgatory’. With no access to art materials, he used prison-issued bars of soap to do portraits by delicately transferring images from newspapers onto the soap. The images initially were from mug shots and crime-related photos in his local newspaper. Newspapers were basically the only link he had to the outside world. The series grew to embody people from ‘outside’ the penal system but whom Krimes considered ‘offenders that just weren’t caught’. Ultimately he made 300 portraits, which are now assembled into one stirring piece. ‘Purgatory’ has also been exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Krime’s portraits on worn down soap have an eerie ephemeral quality. The faces are faint and beckon for careful attention.  The people depicted appear to be fading away. The medium of soap gives the work fragility. The faces ask to be seen before they are potentially washed away.

The soap works which Jesse made in his cell, had to be hidden from the guards. Krimes carved a secret inner compartment inside a complete deck of playing cards in order to hide each soap work. He used the positive nib of an AAA battery to cut out the middle of each individual card within the stack of cards. So 300 soap portraits meant carving out 300 decks of cards as well. They were then smuggled out of the facility. Through the assistance of other inmates, Krimes was able to get the soap works to the mailroom and they were sent to an art historian he knew from school.

Creating these works in prison was definitely a survival strategy. Krimes had thought of himself as an artist before but was not 100% committed (he was only 23 when he was arrested). In prison, however, he found that he had to produce artwork compulsively. It was a strategy for keeping his sanity and also trying to control some aspect of his circumstances. After ‘Purgatory’ he created an epic work called ‘Apokaluptein 16389067 ’. Unlike ‘Pergatory’, ‘Apokaluptein16389067’ is colorful and fanciful. It is done on stolen prison bed sheets and when assembled spans over 40 feet wide.

Perhaps due to the bed sheets, ‘Apokaluptein’, reads as a dream. Krimes depicts a mythical landscape far removed from his physical space. It is a place his demons and angels can dance. The images within each panel were crafted by using a spoon to smooth hair gel over clippings from newspapers and periodicals, including Artforum andArt in America! There are also drawings in pencil throughout the panels. There is a faded ‘fresco’ quality to the transfers that mixes with the phantasmagoric content to remind one of an old religious mandala. It is inspiring to witness such greatness of imagination in such bleak circumstance. While his being was in lock down his spirit soared to explore alter realities. Once again, the art was done in secret and Krimes created the sweeping piece in small fragments. He envisioned the entire piece as he worked on the individual panels over three years.

Currently, Krimes is working on a large-scale sculpture involving plastics that are melted to create organic-seeming forms. When he merges printed images on plastic and burns them together they appear like shards of glass. The work is a little like Dale Chihuly sculptures, but involving text.  The piece will be lit from within and projecting light onto the gallery walls, to create an immersive experience. Also, Krimes is doing a complicated exploration with Google image search algorithms, where he reproduces images in sizes that correspond with their prevalence on the web. Krimes had had no access to the internet while he was locked up for those six years. It is fascinating and important for him to grasp in real time how society is defined now by the internet and social media’s communications.

 I asked Jesse about his experience navigating the art world, post-prison. He said “ In prison, you really learn human psychology and figure out pretty quickly how to read people and how to gauge the power play when you are interacting with others. It’s a matter of survival.”  He added, “ I met some of the kindest and most generous people amongst the ‘throw-aways’ of society”. He went on to say  “I was also stunned by the levels of cunning within the inmates.”  His relationships in prison have given Krimes a razor sharp ability to pinpoint sincerity and that has made his dealing with the art world interesting. When it comes to art dealers, He said he walks away from any energy he thinks is suspiciously trying to take advantage of young artists. He also avoids people who are into his work for the sensational aspect of his prison time. Krimes will exhibit his new work this spring, at Burning in Water gallery. Gallery owner, Barry Malin said “Part of the motivation for the current show was to put all the prison work out there in an attempt to clear the slate a little bit so he has more freedom to follow his own artistic impulses and interests going forward.”  Krimes does aspire to eventually be recognized for work besides what he did in prison. His goal is to one day be “Jesse Krimes the artist…who was once in prison” rather “that prison guy who made stuff with soap.” 

Words/Photo: Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2016


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