The command comes and goes, puncturing the quiet of the gallery every seventeen minutes before the video, “State of Incarceration,” descends again into a less audible decibel range.
The film is a component of “Police and Thieves,” an exhibit currently on display at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) that investigates American precepts of criminal justice. Like the exhibit, the film attempts to overturn the taken-for-granted division between right and wrong.
Excerpts from a play by the Skid Row-based theater troupe Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) appear in the film, seeking to elicit a sense of self-examination. The play depicts prison inmates and corrections officers, many of whom are played by former convicts. They prowl the aisles of a mock-up cellblock as they chide and taunt each other, exhibiting and lamenting the humiliating debasement of incarceration.
However, the film attempts to blur the role of the villain, as both inmates and guards don the same costume of black jeans and a white T-shirt. As the wielders of authority and the criminals subjected to it become gradually indistinguishable, the viewer is challenged to reconsider previous notions of justice. At times, however, the film becomes bloated, even risible (audience members are visibly chuckling are various points), its clarity and meaning diminished by occasional bouts of hyperbolic grandiosity. To put it in other words, the exhibit might be called “Police and Thieves,” but it sometimes comes across as “Cops and Robbers.”
A high point of the exhibit is Arnoldo Vargas, a California native who presents two pieces, “Notice to Appear–Defendant’s Copy” and “In Memoriam: Bike Misdemeanor Leads to Post-Injunction.” The former presents a series of 21 tickets for truancy and traffic violations, hanging below the photographic high-school portraits of the perpetrators. Among them: a new mother clutches her baby; a teen beauty flashes a magnificent smile; a young man’s defiant eyes stare out from beneath a fitted baseball cap. The faces, full of emotion, dramatically resist imposed uniformity–these are portraits, not mugshots. The composition is one of the exhibit’s more subtle achievements, as it successfully tackles vexing issues, like mass incarceration and fear of youth culture, without clubbing the viewer over the head with ham-handed anti-authoritarianism.
Not every piece in the exhibit is so successful. Amitis Motevalli’s piece, “Shohadha,” recreates the shrines devoted to Shia martyrs that reside in her home country of Iran. The 5-foot-by-9-foot installation piece depicts ten victims of police shootings, stenciled onto paper with checkered patterns evocative of Persian tiling. Among the enshrined is Darius Pinex, whom Chicago Police Department officers shot to death during a routine traffic stop on January 7, 2011.
Unfortunately, the tragedy of her subject material is muddled by her decision to present their deaths as martyrdom, which creates the inaccurate impression that her subjects died for a cause in a purposeful act of self-sacrifice. The notion directly undermines the more compelling of the piece’s moral observations: the sheer senselessness, the total absence of purpose or reason, with which these people were killed.
“Before the Revolution,” a piece by Italian-born artist Gusmano Cesaretti, is loud yet elegant and offers one of the more effective articulations of the show’s premise. Bigger and brasher than Vargas’s “Notes,” “Revolution” assails the viewer on multiple fronts with a polychromatic array of Christian iconography and Communist agitprop, arranged along four rows of copy paper. Interspersed among the crucifixes are fragments of a reconstructed Los Angeles–not just the barbershops and auto shops, but also the bare-armed, tattoo-clad cadres of neighborhood gangsters flashing their chrome-plated handguns at the camera.
The piece has neither a distinct beginning nor a satisfying end. Its vibrancy and fickle juxtapositions disorient: in one picture, a mural of the Virgin Mary is menaced by the silhouettes of dangling chains, while next to it, a young woman sneaks a kiss on the cheek of her older companion, possibly her mother. Such joyous images as the latter, interpolated with violence and urban decay, capture the piece’s–and the exhibition’s–most resonant message: no criminality exists without context.
Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S Cornell Ave. Through May 29. Monday-Thursday, 9am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 12pm-5pm. Free. (773)324-5520. hydeparkart.org