The News Service
April 15 to May 29, 2005
Bell Gallery to present photographic exhibits on prison life – and death
The David Winton Bell Gallery will present two photographic exhibitions – One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana and The Omega Suites – April 15 to May 29, 2005. Each exhibition depicts an aspect of U.S. prisons, Photographer Deborah Luster and poet C.D. Wright will discuss their work – One Big Self – during an opening reception Thursday, April 14. Photographer Lucinda Devlin will give a slide lecture on The Omega Suites April 21. Both events and the exhibition are free and open to the public.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Despite the steady growth of the U.S. prison population, many Americans never see what lies behind prison walls. This spring two simultaneous exhibitions at the David Winton Bell Gallery will offer visitors a look at inmates and the tools our nation uses to impose society’s ultimate punishment.
From April 15 through May 29, 2005, the Bell Gallery will present One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana and The Omega Suites, two photographic series taken inside U.S. prisons. One Big Self, a collaboration between photographer Deborah Luster and poet C.D. Wright, features studio-like portraits of the isolated – and very human – inmates held in three Louisiana prisons. In The Omega Suites, Lucinda Devlin photographs what Luster and Wright leave out: the prison infrastructure dedicated to capital punishment – the death chambers, holding cells and executioner and witness rooms.
“These exhibitions present a clearly defined picture of a world we often choose not to see, and both bodies of work serve to remind us of our participation and complicity in the American justice system,” said Jo-Ann Conklin, director of the Bell Gallery.
Deborah Luster and C.D. Wright, a professor of English at Brown, will discuss their work Thursday, April 14, at 5:30 p.m. in the List Art Center auditorium, after which there will be an opening reception. Lucinda Devlin will present a slide lecture Thursday, April 21, at 5:30 pm. in the same location. Both lectures and the exhibition are free and open to the public.
One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana
In 1998 Luster began visiting inmates who had volunteered to be photographed in three Louisiana prisons – a minimum-security facility housing drug offenders and parole violators, a 1,000-bed minimum- to maximum-security facility for women, and a maximum-security facility housing more than 5,000 men. She soon invited Wright, long-time collaborator, to work with her on the project; for the next three years, Luster and Wright visited, photographed, conversed with and corresponded with inmates.
“I was skeptical that my art could turn itself toward that environment,” Wright said. “I agreed to come to Louisiana to see what I could see, to see what Deborah was seeing. It was a summons.”
The result is a powerful and haunting body of work, one the artists describe as an attempt to produce “an authentic document of Louisiana’s prison population through word and text, a document to ward off forgetting, an opportunity for the inmates to present themselves as they would be seen, bringing what they own or borrow or use: work tools, objects of their making, messages of their choosing, their bodies, themselves.”
The exhibition, drawn from a book of the same title, includes both images and words. Excerpts of Wright’s poetry are reproduced on the gallery walls, and recordings of her reading can be heard on Bakelite telephones placed throughout the exhibition. Sixty of Luster’s images – which she produced as 4-by-5-inch silver prints on metal plates reminiscent of tintypes – are framed and featured; they are presented along with loose images in a black, steel-drawer cabinet. Viewers are encouraged to handle the images and examine the personal information supplied by the inmates and engraved on the back of each photo.
The Omega Suites
From 1991 to 1998, with the cooperation of local authorities, Lucinda Devlin photographed death row settings in penitentiaries in 20 states. She titled the resulting series The Omega Suites, offering the final letter of the Greek alphabet as a metaphor for the finality of execution. Her series features 30 simple, but chilling, color photographs of execution chambers and associated spaces, such as holding cells and viewing rooms. With more than 3,000 inmates currently on death row – and 70 percent of U.S. citizens in support of the death penalty – The Omega Suites spotlights one of the greatest and most passionate of ethical questions facing contemporary Americans.
“Working with a Hasselblad camera and long exposures in existing light, Devlin created surprisingly beautiful images,” Conklin said. “Viewers are often drawn by this beauty and then repelled by the reality of the subject.”
“I didn’t want to lead people in one direction or the other with this; that’s not the point for me,” said Devlin, who did extensive research on capital punishment as part of the project. “I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, but I hope they’ll at least think about the issues it raises.”
In addition to One Big Self (2003), Deborah Luster has produced two books with C.D. Wright, Just Whistle (1993) and The Lost Roads Project: A Walk-in Book of Arkansas (1994). She is a 2001 recipient of the Bucksbaum Family Award for American Photography from the Friends of Photography, San Francisco. Represented by Jack Shainman Gallery, N.Y., and Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago, Luster lives in Monroe and New Orleans, La.
C.D. Wright is the author of 10 volumes of poetry and an editor of Lost Roads Publishers. Her publications include Steal Away (2001), a selection of her verse, and Deepstep Come Shining (1998), a book-length poem based a road trip she and Luster made to visit outsider artists in the Southeast; she and Luster also collaborated on The Lost Roads Project: A Walk-in Book of Arkansas, a multimedia project spotlighting the literature of their native state. A member of the Brown faculty since 1983, Wright is the recipient of a 2004 MacArthur Foundation Grant and numerous other awards. Her work has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Conjunctions, The New Yorker and other publications.
Throughout her work, Lucinda Devlin examines how architectural spaces reveal the values of the culture that creates and uses them. She has previously photographed operating rooms, mortuaries and autopsy rooms in Corporeal Arenas; discos, tanning salons, peep shows and fantasy hotel rooms for Pleasure Grounds; and German spas for Water Rites. Her work has been shown extensively in Europe and the United States, in venues such as the 49th Venice Biennale (2001) and the 25th Biennale de Sao Paulo (2002). She has received numerous awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Aaron Siskind Foundation.