View attachment 51571 Behind bars, soap turned into paper, bedsheets into canvas, a battery’s whittled interior into a chisel. Inmate 16389067 says that he secretly created artworks with prison-issued materials and then smuggled them to the outside world for more than four years.
On Thursday in New York, Jesse Krimes opened his first solo gallery show, “Marking Time in America: The Prison Works (2009-2013).” It was the latest turn in a story that began with his 2009 arrest at age 26 for a drug offense in his native Lancaster, Pa.
While Mr. Krimes has yet to sell any of his jail-made art, his work has drawn considerable attention, particularly in the vocal arenas of prison reform and social justice. The government-run Paris art space Palais de Tokyo showed Mr. Krimes’s work last year. An art-school gallery at Philadelphia’s Drexel University followed. His art appeared in a large-scale pop-up exhibit coinciding with the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and featuring pieces by Keith Haring and Banksy.
“A huge cross-section of people are enthusiastic about him and his work,” said conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, who will soon collaborate with Mr. Krimes on a public-art project in Philadelphia and New York. “Trying to go into this fine-art world in Chelsea as a person who is a felon? That’s uncharted waters.”
The new exhibition at the Chelsea gallery Burning in Water runs through Sept. 24 in collaboration with the prison-reform nonprofit JustLeadershipUSA. It features works that Mr. Krimes made while held in his cell for 23 hours a day and pieces he created later in his prison term, when he had daily access to an art room.
The artist, an only child born to a teenage mother in Lancaster, never knew his dad and lost a father figure to suicide when he was 13. After that, he said, he began a downward spiral, though he managed to graduate college with an art degree. At the time of his arrest, Mr. Krimes faced charges that included possession with intent to deliver cocaine. Sentenced to a 70-month prison term, he served 55 months and completed his sentence in a halfway house.
Mr. Krimes, now a muscle-bound 33-year-old, said that he dabbled in sculpture earlier, but it took prison to turn art into his life. While awaiting sentencing at the Dauphin County Prison in Harrisburg, Pa., Mr. Krimes was allowed to receive a Lancaster newspaper. He searched for criminals’ mug shots in its pages and pressed the images onto wet soap, yielding reverse portraits.
Mr. Krimes said he didn’t want to run afoul of prison rules against stealing or damaging government property (the soap), so he hid his soaps inside playing cards. The artist cut small squares into the cards, inserted the soaps and concealed them with small covers made out of playing-card pieces.
The cards were sent out in envelopes, soaps usually undetected. On rare occasion, the letters were confiscated, but Mr. Krimes said he wasn’t punished and continued to send the pieces through the mail to a friend.
Mr. Krimes was eventually transferred to two different federal prisons. A federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman declined to comment about Mr. Krimes’s case, and attempts to reach a Dauphin County Prison official were unsuccessful.
By the end of the artist’s first year, roughly 300 soaps and their holders made it out. Some portraits, which soon included celebrities and others, have faded. The playing cards, which Mr. Krimes eventually bonded with glue, are in better shape. The gallery is featuring the soap and cards as a complete set priced at roughly $50,000. Art dealer Barry Malin, a former head and neck surgeon who started the gallery last year, said Mr. Krimes hopes to sell the series to a school or museum.
“To maintain any sense of identity or sanity within that environment, I began making work the first week I got there,” said Mr. Krimes. “You’re a highly valued member of that community—you’re one of the only individuals that can provide something tangible for the other guys,” Mr. Krimes said. He sketched roughly 50 portraits of inmates, which prisoners often sent home.
The Philadelphia-based artist said that he makes a living through public art commissions, speaking fees and other projects.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is a scaled-down version of an original work that Mr. Krimes made while at a federal prison in Fairton, N.J. He created a 39-panel mural on white prison bed sheets, material he obtained from a friend in the laundry in exchange for books of stamps. The artist took photos from newspapers and magazines and transferred them onto the sheets using hair gel to lift the ink and a plastic spoon to rub the image onto the sheet.
He then drew and painted his own figures onto the works. The panels move from heaven to hell and feature a riot of images whose subjects range from Hurricane Sandy to Taylor Swift, from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Chanel.
By Ellen Gammerman - The Wall Street Journal/Aug. 7, 2016
Photos: Adrienne Grunwald, wallstreetjournal
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