Amy Elkins (Los Angeles, CA)
An Accumulation of Prison Correspondence
From the series Black is the Day, Black is the Night
16 x 20 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery (New York, NY).
Amy Elkins’ Haunting Photography at HCP
“The real may never equal the imagined.” This spare, poignant line of poetry adorns the central wall at the Houston Center for Photography in its latest exhibition, Black is the Day, Black is the Night, on view through July 5th. The line’s considerable impact multiplies upon realizing its author has been in solitary confinement from the age of sixteen. Lines of poetry, pixelated portraits, and staged images of the interiors of cells make up the show’s images which illuminate the seldom-glimpsed lives of several death row and solitary confinement inmates with whom Los Angeles based artist Amy Elkins corresponded over a period of five years. Rather than a documentary angle, Elkins has chosen artifacts and scenes that reveal both the preponderance of time on death row (enough time to become a poet, learn calligraphy, read voraciously) and it’s corrosive qualities as it ineffably moves these prisoners toward the end. It’s a tough project, but one that reveals Elkins’ profound sensitivity to the shades of gray in this potentially black-and-white issue.
It’s important that HCP’s show-about-the-death-penalty isn’t just that. And it isn’t one of those over-researched, not that much in the way of visual stimulation shows, either. In some of the most intriguing and haunting images, Elkins manages to show us the longing of these prisoners from the inside out; for each inmate, she has created a composite image based on a description of a place they would like to see or experience for themselves. She then culled images from amateur photographers all over the world, overlaying them to create beautiful, shifting landscapes that are less studies on place than studies on memory, or, better yet, the creative strength of memory in a mind bereft of beauty. Her portraits are equally poetic: the more pixelated they are, the longer the inmate’s experiences and memories “couldn’t help but mutate.” It’s a stunning visual marker of the slow erasure of the soul that prison represents.
These subtle and powerful images are balanced by another, harsher series of over 500 mug shots of prisoners executed in Texas, overlaid with their final words. Some beg for forgiveness, others steadfastly maintain innocence, and still others revel in their crimes, using their last moment to turn away all comfort for their victims or themselves.
First exhibited for the Aperture Prize in New York, …Black is the Night also marks the first exhibition curated by HCP’s new director, Sarah Sudhoff, who has no desire to skirt charged content. “I wouldn’t say my goal is to show darker, more controversial work, my goal is to not shy away from challenging work just because it’s dark or controversial.” She has plans to mount a “health and beauty” show that explores issues like plastic surgery and could attract a “younger and more diverse audience.” This willingness to exhibit edgy work is mitigated, however, by Sudhoff’s limited schedule. “With only 3 slots a year to curate, balanced with the repeating exhibitions…we have to think what themes are best for HCP to take on.”
…Black is the Night works well towards those ends, bringing up a potentially polarizing subject in a smart and nuanced way. It humanizes while acknowledging both the terror caused by the prisoners and the terror visited upon them daily. Elkins has chosen the razor-thin edge in this highly politicized issue, proving through her painstakingly researched and staged photographs that art can often speak more plainly than “pure” journalistic fact. With Sudhoff at the helm of HCP, we can hopefully look forward to many more thoughtful exhibitions that spur dialogue on such entrenched and divisive issues.