Inside Prison Art: A Q&A with Jeffrey Greene, Cultbytes

Posted 08/7/19


The world of prison art is quite literally removed from the machinations of the legal art market. By its very design, prison is intended to be a world cut off from society, a place for punitive contemplation. But from an artistic standpoint, the isolation and need for self-reflection are conducive to creative exploration. The Prison Arts Program run by the Community Partners in Action Program in Connecticut seeks to encourage this kind of work–not just for self-betterment, but to the benefit of the viewer of the creative output.

Although other arts programs affect a number of states nationwide, the Prison Arts Program Manager Jeffrey Greene has been exceptionally passionate about disseminating the ideology and ensuring the works are exhibited. Working with inmates was his first job out of art school, and his world view was immediately and greatly expanded upon. Leveraging his painting training with a newfound calling, he has watched the work of the inmates blossom over the years.

The results are staggering, and the means of expression is intensely powerful. Works have subsequently been shown at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and are now on view in Hartford for its annual show at Capital Community College through June 28th. Calling himself a “one-person operation,” Greene spearheaded the showcase of over 750 works by more than 120 inmates.

Editor at Large Alexandra Bregman had a chance to speak more in-depth with Greene about the project and its far-reaching impact. Following her recent publication of The Bouvier Affair: A True Story, she has been fascinated by art crime at the upper echelons of the corrupted marketplace but had not yet considered the artistic practice within the walls of the prisons themselves.

After art school, you connected with an artist friend who had recently returned from the Peace Corps in Togo to run the prison arts program. Seeing how the prison operated was a huge wake-up call for you, coming from the somewhat pretentious world of semi-calculated art making to the passionate but stifled artistic practice of inmates. Was there an ‘aha moment’ working within the system that you realized how important the project should remain?

I’d say that the ‘aha moment’ came the moment I first visited a prison. I saw real people, in absurdly closed spaces, being compelled by those spaces to consider themselves, and the world, through absurdly narrow perspectives. Once I felt that (immediately) and saw, just through my interactions and conversations within the prison, that I and other visiting artists could open the space and widen perspectives, I realized the huge importance of the project. Even as young and naive as I was (and I was), all that was immediately clear.

I realized that an alien/outside presence within the prison changed the prison. I realized that through arts instruction a change in perspective would be brought back to the prison blocks and cells, and grow to infect everything. And I realized that most people (unless they have some practical reason to) don’t ever think of the prison or who lives there and that that magnifies the value of those who do start thinking of the lives lived in prison. There are constantly singular moments where the importance of the project is made clear. An example would be that correctional officers approach me within the prison, or at the front gate, to let me know about an artist in the prison I’ve yet to meet, or to share their experience watching the development of an artist in the program, or even to ask for advice in regard to their own artistically inclined children. That is huge – officers slowly become helpful and supportive colleagues, and then, again, the prison is changing.

As a specific example, I remember when the great Vincent Nardone first joined our workshop at Osborn Correctional Institution (Osbourne, CI), having already served 24 years in prison, all as an artist painting clipper ships. We asked him, “Why clipper ships?,” and he answered, “Because people like clipper ships,” – an answer we found totally inadequate in the workshop.

As a result, I assigned, to everyone, the project of drawing their own earliest memory. Everyone’s was amazing, personal and powerful, including Vincent’s. From there, Vincent went on to illustrate (in ballpoint pen) his whole life prior to prison, life with his family, on beach boardwalks, in diners, and at drive-in theaters, all in meticulous and loving detail. He became a time machine, and he transported his family (parents in their 80’s) back to a wonderful time in their lives…it would not have happened without the program. It just takes five minutes of conversation to turn someone away from a life of pointless, stereotypical, artistic pursuits in prison, and push them towards something personal, powerful, unique and transportive. Now, several years after his release, officers and other incarcerated individuals constantly ask about him.

A counselor called to say, “We’ve got an inmate making a life-sized cellmate out of saltine boxes. Is that art?” Yes! We got involved right away.

I remember, as well, a phone call from the mental health unit at Garner CI, an isolated maximum-security prison in the woods of western Connecticut. A counselor called to say, “We’ve got an inmate making a life-sized cellmate out of saltine boxes. Is that art?” Yes! We got involved right away. The artist, Jesus Rios (although deaf, mute, and illiterate) started making staggering sculptures out of card stock and unraveled bed sheet threads. That was about 20 years ago, and since, he’s been in hundreds of exhibitions, and has been out of prison for the majority of that time as well…he was able to find an advocate to appeal for his release through his artwork. That does not happen without the Arts Program.

Who do you think pushed the boundary of their own imaginations while living behind bars exceptionally well?

The exhibition at the Aldrich Museum was wall-to-wall work by artists who I think push (or eliminate) the boundary of their own imaginations while behind bars. A great example is the work of Lee Jupina. A motorcycle gang member, he came to the class, and for the first two months kept working on what I thought was a stupid drawing of Osama Bin Laden being targeted by a sniper in Mecca. Why was he doing this? It turned out he was just working on the drawing to give another artist in the class, Frederick Gunn, a Muslim. (They were friends, and it seemed that Lee initially signed up for the workshop just to give Frederick a hard time, waiting years for the chance.) Anyway, we confronted Lee, and put a stop to the Mecca drawing. I cut up a bunch of card stock, gave him a fistful of ballpoint pens and assigned him the task of making a drawing a day, trying to use up a pen every day as well. He started making these strange silhouette drawings off the top of his head, alternatingly funny, brutal, sobering and confusing. He started making amazing drawings that were uniquely his own, and he’s made hundreds so far.

His friend, Frederick Gunn, was up to his own exceptional drawings too, creating his own hieroglyphic language to, first, illustrate the Koran, and later his own life…beautiful and strange drawings, that, again, are totally his own. Those two artists and their distinctive development will always be ingrained in my mind, together.

Of course, this is not always the way. We have an incredible draughtsman at Osborn CI right now, Arthur Gainey, who just can’t get past copying pictures. I’ve asked him, in every way possible, to get past this copying. I asked him to try and remember a dream, and he said, “I’m in prison in my dreams too. There is no difference between my dreams and the prison, in all my dreams I’m in my cell block. I can’t see anything beyond the prison.” He just cannot exercise any imagination – decades in prison seem to have sapped that ability from him.

How do various artists express similar emotional pain differently within the system?

This is probably too big of a question. Specifically, I guess, the pain of physical confinement is expressed in millions of ways. Artists sometimes try to make something bigger than their cell, trying to deny the existence of physical limitations. Artists turn to illustrating nature, trying to bring nature into their cells through their work. Artists turn to obsessive artwork that builds over time, documenting time and accomplishment, while, often, serving as meditative practices to get lost in. Artists might try to involve their loved ones, as subjects or even as correspondents or collaborators, to somehow eliminate the walls between themselves and those they love. Of course, many artists will turn to fantasy work, genre work, work that gives them a world to live in through artwork. I guess these are all examples of coping or alleviating emotional pain, but I think, also, examples of expressing that pain, as well. Artists will often make desolate work that makes the limbo world they constantly experience visible to others or themselves. And, artists will make violent work, as well, using the page as a world where they can still have control, or act out, without disciplinary consequences.

In terms of the selling structure of art inside the prison system, how are artworks (envelopes, handkerchiefs, and other more sophisticated art pieces) sold to other prisoners?

There is no money in prison. Perhaps, a prisoner can have their loved one put money on the books for another inmate, but this is a dangerous move, that can result in severe disciplinary consequences if discovered. So, the currency of prison is artwork and items from the commissary. Prisoners are allowed to buy basic items (and some strange ones) from a list, with the money coming off their books. An artist will sell a decorated envelope for a certain number of blank, stamped envelopes, or deodorant, Cup O’Noodles, ramen, a Pickle-In-A-Pouch, Fireballs, Jolly Rancher candies, or blank handkerchiefs…etc.

When the artworks leave the prison system, how does their value inflate?

In prison, five dollars, or, actually, five dollars in the commissary, is substantial. When you make $1 a day at a prison job (making mattresses, sewing uniforms, cooking the meals, cleaning the blocks, etc.), five dollars of commissary is valuable. On the outside, of course, five dollars is just five dollars. An artist, new to the Annual Show (the only opportunity for artists in Connecticut prisons to sell their work), might be looking for that five dollars. Of course, we then raise that price to something more in context with the outside world, while, at the same time, not denying the artist the opportunity to likely sell the work.

Note, though, that the Program is not focused on art sales, quite the contrary. We encourage artists to send work to their loved ones, to hold onto or to enjoy. We also save artwork for artists, back in flat files at our warehouse, as artists within the prison have very limited storage space. The breakdown for sales: 60% in the artists account, 25% to a postage fund to mail artwork to families at the conclusion of the Annual Show, and 15% to the Commission on Victims Services “Victims Compensation Fund.”

Discretion is required when selling art outside of the system to keep the value stable for different markets. Why do art sales for prisoners necessitate this understated approach?

Over time, artists involved in the program might start making staggering work. Their artwork can become very valuable. Then, we have to find some balance: we can’t start sending large sums of money into the prison, as we would then be found guilty of contributing to the economic enterprise of an inmate rather than just facilitating a harmless way to dignify the constructive endeavors in the prison and provide some small, but much-needed, funding for art supplies for artists.

When galleries become involved, it also opens up the always present danger of artists tailoring their work to the tastes of collectors, curators, and galleries, rather than tailoring their work to their evolving, ambiguous, arts practice within the prison. Of course, outside influence is always there, and, with our own constant critiques within the workshops, outside influence is already a part of the work…all in all, a difficult issue (or set of issues) to navigate.

Besides all of that, and maybe more importantly, we need to be careful not to bring negative attention to the work of the program…i.e., ‘Why is the guy who killed my son, being taught how to paint, and then make money off his paintings, while in prison?’ This is a valid question, and one we can readily answer, but the Department of Correction certainly does not wish to receive those calls. The operation of the work in the prison is paramount, so we need to keep that in mind in all of the so-called outside world work of the program.

Has anyone, upon release, been working as a successful artist? Is that a rarity, a hope, or something in-between?

I’d say that someone working as a successful artist, following art school, is a rarity…so, the same is true in prison. Our goal is that artists will take new skills, experiences, and mindsets into the outside world: work ethic, confidence, self esteem, an understanding of the process (and value) of long-term endeavors, communication skills, problem solving skills, the ability to think critically and accept, and act upon, criticism, etc. Also, we find that many artists continue to make art making a huge part of their lives while they ‘make a living’ at something other than art-making.

That said, there are many artists that leave prison as practicing, successful, artists. Ray Materson, who stitches 2 ½” x 2 ¼” tapestries out of unraveled socks, has found great success since his release, decades ago. Another recent example is the artist Danny Killion, who operates Weathered Wood, a showroom for his own artwork and furniture made out of found wood, as well as for the work of artists and artisans from throughout the Troy/Albany, NY area. Not only is he successful as an artist, but he, now, contributes to the success of other artists in the outside world as well. All is a direct result of his work with the Prison Arts Program.

Have you noticed any differences between female and male art-making within the correctional system? Are there any female artists you’d like to highlight?

Ok, another huge question, and I’ll likely only just touch on the answer here…When I began doing this work, decades ago, I was only, personally, facilitating workshops in men’s prisons. I would visit and collect work at the women’s prison (there was one, compared to 20 men’s prisons in Connecticut, when I started), but I did not run the workshop. At the time, and still today, I think, there are 20 times as many programs and volunteers for women as men. People clearly think women are more savable. As a result, I simply collected work from all the projects going on in the women’s prisons. The problem was that most of the work was lazy and not very good…five-minute drawings of flowers, or of a woman crying behind bars. Why did it pale in comparison to the men’s work we were collecting?

Many colleagues had ideas: men had control issues, and quickly took to controlling the page, while most women in prison, I was told, were victims of abuse, and did not have the confidence to make great drawings; or, men make work for themselves and women make work for their children; many reasons that in the end were just sexist and/or simply incorrect assumptions. The real reason (I think) was, that volunteers going into the women’s prisons were spending their time fawning over five-minute drawings in an attempt to instill self-esteem in the women. Rather than be critical, and encourage endeavors that, in the end, and through hard work, would result in something great, volunteer instructors and counselors were selling the artists short and allowing the artists to sell themselves short. When I finally started teaching at the women’s prison, for the first year, everyone would say, “He’s the guy that will tell you your drawings are shit.” But, we all know when we’ve done something good (or great). Telling us we’ve done something great when we haven’t, doesn’t instill self-esteem. We are all smarter than that.

Anyway, there are no differences between the abilities of men and women in prison, nor any difference in motivation, subject, complexity, etc. There might be differences in construction, as the women are allowed to crochet, but that is about it. Some exceptional artists in the women’s prison include: Nina Robinson (née Massa) who made an abstract drawing a day, for the last year of her prison sentence, folding it into an origami heart each night before bed – her “Year of Grace and Mercy” was featured as the 2011 Annual Show poster; Gillian Estremera aka Jillian Vasquez, who lost herself in obsessively worked oil pastel drawings, drawings that she would only work on in anger, letting the anger dissipate as she completed the drawing; Yong Mi Olsen, who made incredibly composed and exquisitely finished drawings from the moment she started in the workshop; Lynda Gardner, who made the perverse decision to make highly detailed pen drawings as she lost her eyesight to macular degeneration; Kim Lebel, who would use a dental flosser to pull ink out of the back of ballpoint pens to create strange nebula/cavernous worlds on bright white paper; or June Seger, whose crocheted bacon cheeseburger hat stands, still today, as one of the greatest symbols of our work – in the brutal, limbo world of the prison, someone was encouraged and enabled to make a crocheted bacon cheeseburger hat – that is the sign of a great project, if ever there was one.

I will say this: the difference between men and women in prison, in my experience, is that the women are generally open and the men are generally closed, and both, painfully so! If something is going on in the life of a woman in our workshops, we will, almost always, inevitably know. A male participant could have lost his son in a motorcycle accident earlier in the day, and we will likely not learn this in class that night, or probably ever. For the men, it seems, the torment of the prison itself, apart from what is going on inside each prisoner, is too much already. It is already so brutal living in prison and living with your own torment, that having to deal with anyone or everyone else’s torment, as well, is just out of the question…shut up, keep going, bear it. At this point, my theory in regard to the women’s prison is that the women need a witness. It feels like the women must express their torment to confirm that it is real, valid, and not something simply imagined. In the women’s prisons, everyone’s torment seems to be out in the open, and everyone is not only navigating their own experience, thoughts, and feelings, but the experience, thoughts, and feelings of everyone around themselves, as well. For me, I find this incredibly draining, but, perhaps that is because I am a man? I haven’t figured it out, of course. These are all just my own observations to date, and I’m always trying to make sense of my experience, and, sometimes, foolishly so!

…in many ways her artwork and journal keeping led to the confidence to finally acknowledge truths about herself that she’d always known. She is presently living in a maximum security men’s prison but is the first Connecticut inmate to undergo transgender hormone therapy…

Finally: there is an incredible artist we’ve worked very closely with, who is transgender, Veronica May Clark. Her work is staggering, and, in many ways her artwork and journal keeping led to the confidence to finally acknowledge truths about herself that she’d always known. She is presently living in a maximum security men’s prison but is the first Connecticut inmate to undergo transgender hormone therapy. She is serving a life sentence and has expressed her great hope that she’ll make it to the women’s prison. So, of course, I’ve shared all of my above thoughts with her and cautioned her of what she’s in for! But, who knows, maybe that chaotic (to me) sharing of torments is right up her alley! Or, perhaps, as time goes on, all of these things I’ve described will change? Quite possible.

Given the privatized for-profit structure of prisons, what does it mean for collective economies that prisoners themselves can make money while behind bars?

Connecticut is not involved in any for-profit prison structures, and I would imagine that for-profit prisons (privately operated prisons) discourage any connection between the prison and the outside world, eliminating any opportunity for art sales.

I would say that, in all prisons, whatever we can do to make life in prison a continuation of life (rather than a timeout from life), leads to released prisoners infinitely more capable of success and sanity back in the outside world… Going from a world where a job isn’t a necessity, back into the outside world where it absolutely is, can be impossible to navigate.

What do you hope those outside the correctional system take from the showcase? And vice versa, what do prisoners and lawmakers learn from this?

What people take away from the annual show, and all of our exhibitions is that people are complicated, that the world is complicated and that many different lives are being lived in many different places…and those people and places are all real.

“Community Partners in Action: Prison Arts Program, Annual Show 2019” is on view through June 28th at Community Capital College, 950 Main Street, Hartford, CT. Monday through Friday 9AM-9PM and Saturday, June 15, 11AM-3PM.


Harmony Hammond’s Art Is Bold and Prickly as Ever, The New York Times

Posted 08/9/19


RIDGEFIELD, Conn. — With all the hullabaloo around the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, it’s easy to forget that, well into the 1970s and beyond, to be an out gay artist was to court mainstream-career suicide. Harmony Hammond, who began exhibiting and curating in the very early post-Stonewall years, was one of the people responsible for defying and reversing this repression.

In the 1970s, in New York City, she organized the first local exhibition devoted entirely to art by gay women, and called it what it was: “A Lesbian Show.” She co-founded the feminist Heresies Collective and coedited a lesbian-themed issue of its journal. In 2000, she published “Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History,” the first and still only comprehensive survey book on the subject. (It’s been out of print for years.) From the start, in her own sculpture and painting, she bucked the trend that equated political art with figurative work, and invented her own modes of queer abstraction.

She did pay a price for such focused boldness. Only now, at 75, is she having her first career retrospective, “Harmony Hammond: Material Witness, Five Decades of Art.” And it’s not at a big-guns urban institution, but at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in leafy suburban Connecticut. Wherever, the show is taut, moving and beautiful, and well worth traveling to see.

As organized by Amy Smith-Stewart, senior curator at the Aldrich, the survey doesn’t follow a chronological path, though biography clearly shaped this art. Ms. Hammond grew up in a working-class town near Chicago. She studied painting in college, married a fellow artist, and for a while supported herself with minor art-related jobs.

But after the couple moved to New York City in 1969 — the Stonewall year — her trajectory became less conventional. Within a year, she had a daughter, separated from her husband, and began the process of coming out as a lesbian. Plunging headlong into the roiling downtown cultural scene, she joined a feminist consciousness-raising group, studied weaving and tai chi (she would later practice and teach the Japanese martial art of aikido), and, in 1972, became a founding member of the all-women A.I.R. Gallery, which is still going strong.

The earliest work at the Aldrich, a set of six fabric sculptures called “Presences,” reconstitutes the main element of her first A.I.R. solo. Each sculpture, suspended from the ceiling by a rope and lightly brushing the gallery floor, is roughly human size and composed of layered strips of dyed and painted cloth. The forms, of uncertain gender, look archaic, ceremonial, and communal in spirit. Significantly, most of the fabric strips were from recycled clothing donated by members of the women’s group Ms. Hammond was involved with.

The sculptures that immediately followed, called “Floorpieces,” were also made from cloth, in this case commercial knit scraps that Ms. Hammond scavenged from sweatshop dumpsters in SoHo. She braided the cloth in a traditional rag-rug technique, then painted the surfaces. The tondo-shaped pieces — five of the original seven are in the show — are a cross between paintings, sculptures and domestic accessories. As such, they cast all three categories into question, and erase hierarchical distinctions between fine art and “women’s work” craft. To emphasize their versatile identities, Ms. Hammond insisted they be displayed on the floor in an otherwise empty gallery, as they are, to striking effect, at the Aldrich.

The art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson, one of Ms. Hammond’s most astute critics, has suggested that the “Floorpieces” were the first works to consciously introduce a queer, and specifically lesbian identity, into Ms. Hammond’s work. The artist herself gives the nod in her extraordinary series of “Wrapped Sculptures” from later in the decade.

Once again, fabric is the chief material, but now tightly wrapped around wood armatures — ladders, stretcher bars, furniture parts — in thick, bulging, skin-stretching layers like muscles pumped to the point of explosion. The artist has said she modeled the work on aspects of the female body, exterior and interior, and she comes up with some tender tableaus: In one, a small, dark “ladder” leans, as if seeking support, against a larger, light-colored one. But the same technique can produce ominous things. A large, four-pronged wrapped sculpture called “Kong” protrudes from the wall like an immense grasping hand.

When these sculptures first appeared, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they looked like nothing else in the art world. They still look that way. So does much of what came after.

In 1984, Ms. Hammond moved to New Mexico, where she still lives, and her art reflected the changed environment. With expanded studio space, she explored larger formats. In place of dumpster-diving, she collected relics of abandoned farmhouses. A 1992 installation called “Inappropriate Longings” includes three abstract collage-paintings that incorporate fragments of old linoleum flooring. In front of them stands a coffin-shaped water trough filled with dead cottonwood leaves.

At a glance, the installation gives off a nostalgic Dust Bowl vibe, though a close look delivers a nasty contemporary surprise: razor-carved into one of the panels, and smeared with red paint, are the words “Goddamn dyke.” The artist made the piece in response to reports of a hate crime committed during Colorado’s 1992 passage of an amendment to the state constitution denying gays protection from discrimination. (In 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the amendment as unconstitutional.)

Ms. Hammond entered art as an abstract painter and continues to be one, though of an emphatically un-Modernist kind. She has written: “My work is NOT pure, isolated, authoritative, universal, self-referential, self-sufficient or removed from social function.” This declared impurity is obvious everywhere in the show, from drawings made using watercolor, ink, and menstrual blood to a series of painting-like works made of straw mixed with acrylic pigment. (Some of these pieces look like blocks of spun gold, others like clods of dry earth.)

What is consistent is an unrelenting stress on materiality and a non-binary approach to form: Everything is painting andsculpture. In certain recent paintings, strips of cut canvas, secured by tacks or pierced by grommets, crisscross the surface in sculptural relief. And although this work is nonfigurative and even technically imageless, it very clearly suggests bound or bandaged flesh. In short, her monochromatic abstraction is never fully abstract. It is always, in some way, about actual tension and pressure, physical, political, psychological.

Tons of abstract art has been churned out in the past five decades, yet not much new has happened. Galleries and museums are filled with walk-on-by works that, whatever their ingenuities, are basically just variations on old models, wall-filling exercises in easy, comfortable beauty. Ms. Hammond’s art has beauty too, but of a prickly, irritant kind: it’s burlap — sometimes sandpaper — as opposed to silk. No surprise that, in a market-driven art world resistant to what can’t be classified and resentful of work that refuses to ingratiate, the spotlight has been a long time coming her way. At the Aldrich, it shines.


Frank Stella Preview, Art in America

Posted 08/7/19


​Frank Stella, who began his career in the late 1950s, first became known for his precisely shaped black canvases, then for more vivid paintings and colorful sculptures made from welded aluminum and steel, carbon fiber, plastic, and found objects. Though Stella experiments with myriad geometric forms, the star has been a notable subject through out his career, from early paintings to recent sculptures. “Frank Stella’s Stars, A Survey,” features roughly twenty wall works and four outdoor sculptures demonstrating the artists’s recurrent use of the star and how, in certain cases, the motif has been obscured.

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Conn., May 17 to October 11, 2020.


Connecticut Art Museums Work to Break Down Barriers, CT Post

Posted 08/7/19


Connecticut museums are trying to break free of seeming aloof and engage with their local communities, starting with free admission for those who receive food stamps.

Museums nationwide are trying to knock down barriers to cultural institutions, particularly art museums. Oft-cited barriers include admissions prices and public transportation. Others include exhibits that are not relevant to, or do not represent, the diverse people of color, non-native English speakers and LGBT people in the community.

To include those who cannot afford tickets, three art museums and five children’s museums in Connecticut participate in Museums for All, a cooperative initiative between the Association of Children’s Museums and the Institute of Museum and Library Services that lets visitors with EBT cards visit for free or at a reduced cost.

Three are in Fairfield County: The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, the Aldrich Museum Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield and Stepping Stones Children’s Museum in Norwalk. Patrons of the Bruce and the Aldrich who present an EBT card can admit up to four people for free.

“If you don’t have to worry about paying, it makes it more accessible,” says Diana Rafferty, the education coordinator for the Bruce Museum. “The last thing we want to do is make the culture that is available to everyone hidden behind a paywall.”
To improve the experiences of visitors who benefit from Museums for all, Rafferty has encouraged conversations among staff members about the myths and realities of poverty.

Most welfare recipients are white, contrary to enduring stereotypes, and education — while a great equalizer — saddles the very people trying to escape generational poverty with crippling debt, she says.

Rafferty herself received unemployment benefits for a while, and says every bit helped. Among Americans who work, a significant portion live paycheck to paycheck, she added.

“I don’t think people realize how close some people are to that, or how normal they are,” she says.

This is the first year the Aldrich has participated in a program specific to SNAP EBT benefits. While Ridgefield is regarded as an affluent town, not all families reflect that image, so the program helps the Aldrich connect with all its community members, says Namulen Bayarsaihan, the museum’s education director.
“I think that will open up a wide audience that we necessarily have not been considering intently or poignantly in the past,” Bayarsaihan says.

But the word of free admission for EBT cardholders has spread slowly. The Aldrich faces other obstacles, too, stemming from its location in a small Connecticut town without much public transportation, Bayarsaihan says.

The art museum is finding new ways Ridgefield residents, as well as those in the surrounding communities, including free bus transportation for area Title I schools that take field trips there.

More than money
Inclusion advcoates say museums in Connecticut are well-intentioned, but need to do more than lower prices to be accessible and representative of the state’s demographics.

Museums in the state, particularly Fairfield County, struggle because the state is small, affluent and somewhat conservative, says Angie Durrell, the founder of INTEMPO, a Stamford-based organization that works to make culture and music relevant, inclusive and accessible.
“People think we have no transportation, no money, but some people have those things and want to go to museums, but they’re not being invited,” Durrell says. “No one is going to their community centers or their emails to invite them.”

Luciana McClure, a New Haven-based artist and activist, agrees. The co-founder of Nasty Women Connecticut, and a Latinx (the gender-neutral term for Latino or Latina), she aims to remove elitism from the local art scene and empower everyone to experience and make art.
“Many museums are interested in being relevant and inclusive, but often they do not know what that means,” McClure says. “It’s more than just reduce prices for us to attend.”

Museum culture targets a primarily white audience, McClure says. Each department needs to consider exhibiting diverse people, and if need be, rearranging these collections to challenge how museums have displayed the works of other cultures.

The advocates also recommended diversifying staff and board members and going into the underrepresented communities to figure out why potential museum-goers stay away.

“We can’t change the past, but we can change the future by how we talk about things,” McClure says. “What we’re trying to bring more people into New Haven and Connecticut?”
For some, it may be that these spaces seem intimidating. Diversifying the artwork on display is one way museums try to attract people with different interests.

“For a really long time, museums have been seen as these bastions of culture — and they are — but to go along with that, there are these imposing buildings and intimidating pieces of art that are not known to people who didn’t grow up around art,” Rafferty says.

Rafferty grew up in a rural town and was was intimidated by museums. Today, she wants to remove this barrier for visitors.

“It’s about exploring all kinds of things, like low-brow humor, outside art (works by self-taught artists) or fine art,” she says. “Everyone should get the chance to experience all that.”

When people think about contemporary art, many imagine the non-representational painting hanging on the stark white wall of a museum. To fight against this trope, Bayarsaihan says the Aldrich keeps no permanent collection, and instead constantly rotates emerging and mid-career artists from an array of backgrounds.

While contemporary art is perceived as hard-to-understand, it is actually relevant to most observers because these works respond to ongoing conversations.

“You don’t need to know anything about contemporary art to experience it,” she says.
These conversations range from politics to the weather. An upcoming group exhibit at the Aldrich focuses on art that explores weather, including season changes, weather-gauging tools and the impact of weather on communities.

“Weather is so important and relevant to everyone,” she says. “If we can talk to a stranger about weather, we can come to an art show and have a meaningful experience.”

“Weather is so important and relevant to everyone,” she says. “If we can talk to a stranger about weather, we can come to an art show and have a meaningful experience.”


Harmony Hammond: Material Witness, Five Decades of Art, Art New England

Posted 08/7/19


Harmony Hammond: Material Witness, Five Decades of Art is the first museum survey of work by the radical artist, activist and feminist. Curated by Amy Smith­ Stewart, the exhibition focuses on Hammond’s ability to transform and manipulate materials­ fromscrapsoffabricsalvaged fromdumpsters in Manhattan to the corrugated roofing tins she discovered in Tucson’s vacant lots. A vast selection of catalogues, books and other publications by Hammond, author of Lesbian Art in America (2000) andco-founder of the journal, HE RES IE S: A Feminist Publication of Art & Politics (1976), cements her foothold as an important intellectual and concludes this impressive, long-overdue show.

Covering nearly 50 years of her career from 1971 to 2018, the exhibition highlights some of Hammond’ s well known works such as her ” wrapped sculptures,“made from wooden armatures onto which Hammond layered painted fabrics. Kong (1981), a giant looming form, greets visitors near to the museum’s entrance while Hug (1978) imparts a maternal aura with its pair of ladder- like forms-onerose gold, the other dark forest green-resting gently on each other. Five of the original six Floorpieces, first shown in 1974 at Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York, were installed by the artist in a bright room on the museum’s first floor. These colorfulbraided rugs, pieced together from found fabrics that Hammond called “ rags,” counterbalance the austerity of minimalist Carl Andre’s con­temporaneous floor sculptures. Hammond’s Floorpieces are also viewable from a balcony upstairs where her Presences are housed. Eight figurative silhouettes composed of tattered and painted textiles donated to the artist by her friends hang from the ceiling, giving the gallery a haunted feeling.

Several of Hammond’s most recent works are gathered in the penultimate room, which is dominated by large-scale paintings. Hammond’smoveto theSouthwest in the mid-‘80s marked a shift in her materials, andshe began sourcing detritus from abandoned houses, burlap and used tatami mats given to her by her Aikido master. With its off-white grommeted straps that pierce and straddle the"near­ monochrome” composition, Blanco (2012-13) has violent and sexual undertones, exuding Hammond’s prowess to embody materials with her punchy, political agenda.


Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum Names Amy Smith-Stewart Senior Curator, Artforum

Posted 08/7/19


The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, has promoted Amy Smith-Stewart to senior curator. Since Smith-Stewart joined the institution as a curator in September 2013, she has worked on twenty-nine exhibitions and projects, including the first solo museum show of work by artist Eva LeWitt, which will open in October.

Prior to joining the Aldrich, Smith-Stewart founded an eponymous gallery, which operated out of a location on New York’s Lower East Side for two years and is now a roving curatorial project. She also held curatorial roles for the now-defunct Mary Boone Gallery, the Peter Norton Collection, and MoMA PS1, and taught at the School of the Visual Arts and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

“During her tenure at the Aldrich, Amy has organized incredible exhibitions that have brought deserving artists and bodies of work the attention they deserve—an undertaking at the heart of the museum’s mission,” said executive director Cybele Maylone. “I’m particularly delighted by the work she has done to bring women artists to the Aldrich, as evidenced by the three stellar shows she organized that are currently on view by Harmony Hammond, N. Dash, and Sara Cwynar.”


Sara Cwynar’s Photoshop Proletariat, The Nation

Posted 08/7/19


Sara Cwynar’s video Cover Girl (2018), the artist’s meditation on femininity and the history of cosmetics, includes scenes shot in the depths of an unnamed makeup factory. In one scene, the camera pans over sterile jars filled with flesh-tone liquids to be eventually sold as foundation. In another, thin sheets of oily rose-colored wax—pink lipstick in progress—cascade down a slide looking like slices of finely shaved deli meat, delectable and disgusting.

There is something jarring about seeing the cold realities of the beauty industry—a sector that is growing rapidly among millennials, shilling self-care, individuality, and most important, the capacity to be Instagram ready. And after one views Cover Girl in Cwynar’s “Gilded Age” at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut—the artist’s first East Coast solo museum show—it’s hard to resist seeking out more footage from inside cosmetics factories. My favorite, a YouTube video by L’Oréal on its lipstick-making process, stands out for embracing the contradiction between the product’s associations and its mode of manufacturing, stressing that “as glamorous as it is, lipstick is still a high- technology product.” As the video elaborates, lip color is mixed according to tested, standardized procedures. To achieve each shade, multiple pigments are needed, and each tube contains about 20 ingredients.

Images, especially those of women, are just as manufactured—comprising ingredients that cohere into one appealing or comprehensible vision. And many of Cwynar’s videos and photographs are designed, like Cover Girl, to offer something like a behind-the-scenes look into the making of feminine ideals. Her work forces viewers to question why certain tropes of femininity appear beautiful or at least normalized. Why does a synthetically produced red lip, for example, read as sultry rather than machinic? And when and why do we embrace artifice in women? How much makeup is too much? At what point does self- enhancement slip from tasteful to garish?

Cwynar’s work is also interested more broadly in identifying the palettes, cinematographic moods, and media formats we are subconsciously drawn to. For example, her best-known film, Rose
Gold (2017)—shown in a 2017 exhibition at her New York gallery, Foxy Production—highlights our attraction to soft colors and faded analog film. (Soft Film is the title of a 2016 video showing the artist arranging her vintage eBay purchases by look, date, and function.) Shot on 16 millimeter, Rose Gold centers on color trends and takes its name from the popular, since-discontinued iPhone color option. Through a series of montages and voiceovers, Cwynar reveals how our reception of different hues changes over time by comparing our appreciation of the titular iridescent pink to our revulsion for older, harsher metallics like harvest gold, a mustardy shade that was a staple of 1970s fridges and shag carpets.

Cover Girl picks up on the themes of Rose Gold, demystifying beauty as something in flux—subject to the rules of advertising and manufacturing rather than instinct or nature—and continues Cwynar’s exploration of 16 millimeter’s subduing effects. As she observed at the opening of “Gilded Age,” many of the hottest brands, like Glossier, a naturalish makeup line, and Acne Studios, the Swedish fashion house, trade in dusty colors. A certain form of nostalgia is trending, hungry for the sun-

washed tints and blurry imprecision of older media, and Cwynar capitalizes on this fact in her filmmaking. Despite Cover Girl’s unsavory factory scenes, its retro format tinges it with an overall loveliness. Wrapped in the warm embrace of analog, even its sequences of sterile machinery acquire an undeniable gauzy charm, appearing slower and less sharply defined than if they were captured digitally.

Cwynar was born in 1985 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and studied and worked in graphic design—she is a former New York Times Magazine staffer—before turning to the fine arts and pursuing an MFA in photography at Yale. Her background in the world of commercial and editorial design has made her particularly well suited to engage questions about how we package and create beauty trends and given her the skills to understand how professionally made images of women and their products function.

How images and texts are placed, colored, and arranged establishes the parameters within which we all receive and assess visual media and their subjects, yet these mechanics often go unnoticed by the untrained eye or are unremarkable to consumers less interested in advertisement’s construction than its emotional impact. Thanks to her training, however, Cwynar is capable of seeing through myriad design conventions and teases apart how graphics induce desire or disgust in their viewers. Her practice owes a debt to conceptual and appropriation work done in the 1970s and ’80s by artists like Sherrie Levine and Sarah Charlesworth, both credited in “Gilded Age,” but Cwynar takes their insights further and applies them to Web design in addition to print.

For instance, 141 Pictures of Sophie, 1, 2, and 3 (2019)—displayed in the room next to Cover Girl— unpacks the rules that structure online fashion photo shoots. A petite redhead, attractive in a bland way, is photographed three times in Cwynar’s studio against a backdrop printed with a square grid pattern: in the first image, facing directly forward; in the next, angled at a slight leftward tilt; and in the third, turned away from the beholder. The subject, Sophie, is a popular Web model, and the three-part configuration mirrors the way models are frequently shot for online clothing sales in a three-point turn that displays the front, side, and back of a garment. Cwynar has made this fact visible by taping and attaching over the large-scale studio portraits layers of smaller pictures of Sophie standing in identical positions printed from Web pages (mainly Ssense, a high-end fashion, editorial, and e-commerce platform) and cut out. Cwynar then rephotographed the ensemble, giving the final composition an air of both professionalism and amateurism: The pieces of conspicuous tape, the imperfect, slightly jagged scissor cuts, and the lovingly

handmade quality of the arrangement—as you might see on a mood board or locker door—feel at odds with the flat glossiness of its format.

Cwynar copies e-commerce photography but does so imperfectly and with an intentional degree of error and eccentricity that claims it as her own. The photographs force us to confront ostensibly ordinary images, highlighting the disjuncture between the Sophie depicted in the studio and her sleeker digital twin, who has benefited from some expert airbrushing and color correction. An homage to the Photoshop proletariat, the piece hints at the labor that goes into making Ssense Sophie, who has far dewier skin and much brighter crimson hair than the real, nondigitized Sophie. The juxtaposition shows how old techniques of image doctoring persist online in newer and subtler forms and offers a sharp take on the internet as a medium that innovates but does not entirely invent. Cwynar’s skill in illuminating both the electrifying newness and continuities and regressions of Web culture is praiseworthy and makes her one of the most captivating photographers of the millennial generation.

If 141 Pictures of Sophie demonstrates how the Internet gives novel form to old politics, in the ways it objectifies women and touches up reality, then its neighboring piece 432 Nefertitis(2015) illustrates how Web browsers function as something like time machines, operating as portals through which we can explore images, objects, and people of millennia past. Another collage, 432 Nefertitis assembles hundreds of pictures of Nefertiti’s famous circa 1340 BCE bust, with high cheekbones and kohl-lined eyes, in a shape that resembles open browser windows on a computer screen. Sophie’s and Nefertiti’s idealized forms—a twentysomething model and one of the beauty industry’s most ancient references— circulate in the same temporal space of the Internet, ready for us to view, download, print, and share. A Rococo Base (2018) is similarly anachronistic in its pairings: Resembling a visual-culture junk drawer, its surface displays feminine frills from across the ages—eyeshadow palettes in Barbie hues, pastel Post-it notes, photographs of contemporary runway looks, and part of a reproduction of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s 1778 painting of Marie Antoinette. Cropped from the larger painting and removed from its 18th- century background, the queen’s pose reads more coquettish cover girl than stoic royalty. The face that launched a thousand products.

In all her bouffant-haired, pale-powder-faced splendor, Marie Antoinette has gone too far by today’s standards. She is overdone kitsch and, to many, unsightly. Though her look may be passé, it is hard to claim that her quest for picture-perfect beauty is similarly outdated. Women have long been tasked with the impossible mission to be both beautiful and natural. Society has demanded that women be pleasing to the eye, then castigated them for falsity and capriciousness when, to do so, they turned, as did Marie Antoinette, to the aid of rouges and paints. As Cwynar’s work shows, the times may change, but societal expectations of women as standard bearers of so-called tasteful beauty—one that enhances inside the bounds of plausibility—have remained, in many ways, remarkably the same. The creamy pinks and porcelain whites of the rococo may be unsubtle to modern eyes, but are they so unlike the translucent shimmers of Glossier? Aren’t they ultimately all just shades of the same thing?


Harmony Hammond: Material Witness, Five Decades of Art, The Brooklyn Rail

Posted 08/7/19


In this long-overdue career survey, Harmony Hammond proves, if there were ever any doubt, that abstract art can be politically charged and bursting with content. A pioneering feminist artist, curator, writer, gallery co-founder, activist, and scholar of contemporary lesbian art, Hammond, who is still busy in the studio, at 75, was instrumental in carving out a place for women in the male-dominated contemporary art world of early 1970s New York and beyond.

Curated by the Aldrich’s Amy Smith-Stewart, Material Witness, Five Decades of Art includes more than 50 works, dating from the early 1970s to 2018, culled from public and private collections as well as theartist’s own holdings in Galisteo, New Mexico, where she’s lived since 1989. It’s Hammond’s first majormuseum survey, with numerous rarely exhibited gems. Over the course of 50 years, we see Hammond creatively layering meaning in her painting-based abstraction through materials and processes, incorporating everything from textiles and rubber latex to vernacular architectural debris and her own blood. What emerges is a striking visual component to a pathbreaking feminist mission that is still going strong.

Raised in a planned postwar community on the edge of Chicago where conformity ruled, Hammond was lucky enough as a teenager to escape regularly into the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. She studied art in college for a few years before marrying Stephen Clover, a fellow artist. In 1969, the couple moved from Minnesota to New York City and soon separated. (He was gay but not out.) Hammond soon discovered she was pregnant and went on to raise her daughter, Tanya, on her own, making ends meet while making her art and connecting with like-minded women artists. In 1972, with 19 others, she co- founded A.I.R. (Artists in Residence), a cooperative woman-run gallery that became (and continues to be) an important springboard for women artists. Hammond then went on to co-found the Heresies Collective (with artists Joyce Kozloff, Pat Steir, and critic Lucy Lippard, among others), which produced the influential quarterly Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics from 1977 through 1993. And in 2000 she published the award-winning Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History (Rizzoli), the first survey of its kind.

For Hammond, equality was (and still is) largely about “claiming space” in a patriarchal system. We seeher doing that across mediums and dimensions with a refreshing disregard for art historical conventions.Her works can operate between two and three dimensions, don’t always have a back and a front, or aninside and outside. Content spills over the edges of her surfaces, and painting comes off the canvas and off the walls. She uses a brush, but also punctures, stitches, scrapes, binds, ties, and frays her materials. No surface is sacred.

The show offers a rare occasion to see seven of Hammond’s life-size Presences (1971–72) assembled together. Dense accumulations of paint-drenched fabric scraps, sewn together onto a hanger and strung from the ceiling, they take over a gallery space with a commanding, almost regal invincibility. Primal yet eloquent, scrappy but exquisitely constructed, they suggest strength in numbers while invoking the gritty urgency of the creative community of downtown New York in the 1970s. We are in their space, not viceversa, and they might seem intimidating if they weren’t installed at angles, as if in conversation with each one another (and with us). They claim space, yes, but they also invite others into it.

Hammond’s way has always been less about intimidation than infiltration. In her series of rarely
exhibited Floorpieces (1973)—one of the stunners of the show—five circular textiles with concentric rings of color seem to bubble up from underground like hot springs, stealthily penetrating the space of the museum. Made from braided, coiled rags, which Hammond then partially painted, they read more like floor paintings than sculptures. They clearly share a lineage with the domestic handicraft of the rag rug,but here the notion of “women’s work” seems more about the labor of love of making art and getting itseen. Hammond also seems to be riffing on Carl Andre’s Minimalist floor sculptures from the late 1960s, but the artist’s hand is integral to the work rather than stripped away. She has referred to braiding as a “lesbian” activity, with like strands coming together to become stronger, and she recalls sitting in the center of her Floorpieces while making them, working her way out as the spiral grows—a process she likens to the circular movements of aikido and tai chi, martial arts that she practiced for decades.

Hammond has largely avoided representing the body, pictorially, and there is no sign of the male gazehere, as in much other feminist work of the 1970s and ’80s. But the body is everywhere. She has painted on discarded canvas tatami mats from her martial arts dojos, “charged with body contact,” as she’sdescribed, while her Wrapped Sculptures (1977–84), merging a corporeality with upholstery, consist of an armature, or skeleton, wrapped with cloth (flesh), and then covered with coating of paint or rubber latex,or “skin,” a term she’s used to describe paint.

That metaphor might suggest vulnerability in some hands. But for Hammond, the body is resilient and skin, or paint, a protective barrier, even when punctured, scraped, or bound, as suggested in her ongoingseries of “Near Monochromes,” which she’s been working on since the early 2000s. Here, she allows allkinds of content to infiltrate a tradition—the Modernist monochrome—that traditionally forbade it. Tiny bits of color seep up through fissures and sutures, for instance, while laces and straps collaged onto the surface and embedded under the paint disrupt the would-be pristine surface with a blatant suggestion of bandaging and binding.

At times these works bring to mind Alberto Burri’s scarred and burned abstractions from the 1960s. But for Hammond, there is always more of a sense of repairing, restoring, and connecting. As she told anaudience shortly after the exhibition opened: “A bandage always implies the wound. A bandaged gridimplies a disruption of utopian egalitarian order—but also the possibility of holding together, of healing.” That’s the Harmony Hammond that is still articulating a quietly reassuring fierceness through herabstraction, 50 years after she first found her voice.


The Artist Hijacking Photographic Clichés to Explore Gender Stereotypes, Feature Shoot

Posted 08/7/19


Like any language, photography has given birth to a series of clichés that are reductive at best. At their worst, they become a vehicle for disinformation and stereotype, fueling pathologies by reinforcing the most dangerous aspects of confirmation bias. As Jenny Holzer noted, “Clichés endure” — and may very well exist until we root them out and expose them for the perilous, short-sighted, and sloppy thinking that they are.

Canadian artist Sara Cwynar takes aim at popular photographic clichés in her new exhibition, Gilded Age, on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT, through November 10, 2019. Featuring a selection of the artist’s color photographs made over the past five years, the exhibition also includes Kitsch Encyclopedia (2014) her first artist book; Cover Girl (2018), a 16mm film on video with sound; and 72 Pictures of Modern Paintings (2016), a site-specific wallpaper.

Whatever medium Cwynar selects, she uses the form to explore and expose the ways in which images are constructed and recycled in an endless digital loop. Cwynar sets her sights on the preponderance of visual clichés that crowd our space, recognizing the ways in which they can be used as dog whistles to signify ulterior agendas.

For Cwynar, the subject of misogyny takes center stage as she delves deep into the past to examine the ways in which dated iconography is continuously revived. Whether looking at portraits or product shots, Cwynar’s work reveals a cultural penchant for played out archetypes that reinforce dated notions of gender and sexuality as a means to cultivate insecurity and desire and thus expand market share.

While her starting point is drawn from pre-digital sources as diverse as the New York Public Library, a local dollar store, a curbside dumpster, and eBay, Cwynar uses technology to examine the ways in which visual language plays into our fantasies while simultaneously spawning nightmares. The modern-day obsession with lifestyle, as evidenced by everyone from social media influencers to advertisers underscores a long-standing capitalist belief that you can buy happiness — when they understand that the pleasure is as fleeting as the printing of your receipt, and once hooked you can be sold time and again, like an addict on the street.

Yet, for all of the truth that is exposed, the fact is there’s nothing quite so pleasurable as the high. Cwynar’s work does not veer away from beauty, but rather uses it like bait on a hook, captivating us with the fact that what we really, really want, is to stand still and just look.


Beyond Boston: 6 Summer Exhibits Around New England, WBUR

Posted 08/7/19


Harmony Hammond, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Connecticut, Through Sept. 15

Harmony Hammond is an artist, feminist and lesbian scholar, curator and author who has walked her own path in art, uniting minimalism and post-minimalism while exploring marginalized craft traditions. She combines scavenged textiles, fabric, burlap, rope, straw and other found materials with traditional oil and acrylic paint, graphite and watercolor. Now, a career’s worth of her work is on view in “Harmony Hammond: Material Witness, Five Decades of Art.” Spanning 1971 to 2018, the exhibition includes not only her earliest painted sculptures but her mixed-media and monumental “installational” paintings of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as her encrusted “near monochromes.” The exhibit also includes works on paper and ephemera, as well as some of her writing. Her punctured, strapped and patched paintings exude a socially-aware, muscular energy.


Harmony Hammond, The Modern Art Notes Podcast

Posted 08/7/19


Hammond is featured in three important exhibitions around the United States. The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn. is showing “Harmony Hammond: Material Witness, Five Decades of Art,” a survey of Hammond’s career. The exhibition, which was curated by Amy Smith-Stewart, will be on view through September 5. The excellent catalogue, the first hardcover monograph on Hammond’s career, was published by the Aldrich and Gregory R. Miller. Amazon offers it for $45.

Hammond is also included in two major summer historical surveys. “Art after Stonewall, 1969-89” is at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University and at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. It closes at the Grey on July 20; at the Leslie-Lohman on July 21. “Art after Stonewall” surveys the impact the LGBTQ movement had on visual art and culture in the two decades after the Stonewall Rebellion. It was curated curated by Jonathan Weinberg, Tyler Cann and Drew Sawyer for the Columbus Museum of Art, which organized the exhibition. It next travels to the Frost Art Museum in Miami before arriving in Columbus. “Queer Abstraction” is on view at the Des Moines Art Center through September 8. The exhibition, which was curated by Jared Ledesma, examines how LGBTQ artists have used abstraction to address sexuality and gender. It will travel to the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park, Kan. An exhibition catalogue is forthcoming.