Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2023 10:15 am 
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Portrait of an artist whose first notable works were executed while incarcerated

Art & Krimes by Krimes is the portrait of a person, and logically a lot of it is directly narrated on camera by Jesse Krimes, the formerly incarcerated artist whose remarkable trajectory we observe. The film is dominated by Jesse Krimes' force and originality. It's a story of hard knocks, adversity, inspiration, and the powerful creative energy of an articulate and intelligent artist who would not be held back.

He came into the world and spent his early years with strikes against him and they left their mark. The thing is, he was always an artist, and he knew it. He had art training too. But it was the repression of five years in prison that squeezed out of him the nectar of artistic identity and the motivation to pursue a unique vision.

He was born to a teen mother in the community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. No TV, no room of his own, no regular meals. He never really knew his father. His mother's boyfriend raised him and loved him as his own child but, when Jesse was only ten, departed the boy's life and six years later, walked out of rehab into the woods and hanged himself. This left Jesse disturbed and rebellious, and the young Jesse abused substances, selling weed, got kicked out of college, and was generally out of control, being completely reckless even though he had full scholarships to Tyler School of Art, Temple University. He went to jail fora year for "possession with intent." of cocaine, sentenced to six years in federal prison on an augmented sentence because he had refused to reveal his dealers and authorities twisted his sentence to punish him.

Being an artist was more valuable in prison than it is on the outside. Artist were in demand to do portraits, which other inmates pay for. We meet two of the fellow artist inmates who Jesse got to know once transferred from the federal prison prison, who are out now and artists in their own right, though, one black and one Latino, they have not been as successful on the outside as Jesse, perhaps due to the birth advantage of being white. They are one Black and the other Puerto Rican, Jared "O" Owens, who is black, and Gilberto Rivera, who is Puerto Rican. Another black ex-inmate, Russell Craig, joins Jesse in the mural project after release and they remain collaborators and later co-found Right of Return USA, a fellowship for formerly incarcerated artists. Krimes has the spirit of an activist as well as an artist. He tells us how a black man he met in the holding cell got twenty years for the same charge for which he got six. He also notes the way separation and hostility among black, white, and Latino factions is encouraged in federal prison because these keep the population from uniting against the abuses they all share. (The claustrophobia and powerlessness of Krimes' prison experiences are recreated through animations by Molly Schwartz.).

Incarceration brought discipline and in the repression and solitary, art became Jesse's source of sanity. With help from prison buddies who provided him with local materials, prison soap bars and hair styling gel, and helped him mail out segments of the project that utilized bed sheets, Jesse painstakingly over a period of years executed a number of smuggled-out works, including the two epic serial works that became his rather spectacular calling cards as a practicing artist when he was released on parole. The larger work titled Apokaluptein:16389067 and inspired by philosophical texts and the triptych of Hieronymous Bosch, is a series of small segments from prison bedsheets Jesse later assembled into a shimmering forty-foot mural teeming with images he transferred from magazine clips using hair gel. Assembled from a distance it looks almost like a vast cubist landscape, or an early Mirò.

A smaller work, also a serial assembly, is composed of prison playing cards, with the faces cut out of the face cards and replaced by gel-transferred faces if offenders, celebrities and politicians. Another series consists of partially decomposed bars of prison soap with images imprinted on them from newspaper and magazine sheets. In all these Jesse was working out his ideas. He was a conceptual artist, as his prison artist colleagues recognized.

He also had a son born when he got into prison. He determined that he would be there for his son however he could.

As Jesse talks to the camera we feel his energy and charisma (as well as his knowledge and intelligence). Early on, he cites Foucault's Discipline and Punish. It's also clear he has a fully worked out conceptual basis for these and subsequent works; indeed, he is a conceptual artist first of all, though it is essential that there was and remains a physical objective-correlative on walls, platforms, and in display cases for the ideas in his teeming brain.

Krimes is impressive, his picture of art making in prison unusual. A look at his resumé in the ten years since since release, including numerous exhibitions and a Rauschenberg Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, shows he has plenty of achievements under his belt. Three years after release he had a debut show at a new New York gallery; he got permission to attend a show he was included in in Paris. He is now a practicing artist of proven energy and variety whose subsequent work has branched out into different images, including sculptures, whose meaning he elucidates in his on-screen monologues, which never cease to engage. Details of the work can be seen by going to his website, which shows that he continues to explore, though his work and his talk never turn their back on his prison experience or the social realities that led him there. Some seem to see this film as a wakeup call about the US's shocking legal and incarceration systems and it is part of that conversation. But it should be understood first of all as the portrait of an interesting artist.

Art & Krimes by Krimes, 85 mins., debuted at Philadelphia (where Krimes now livews), also showing at numerous US festivals, including Cleveland, RiverRun and Charlotte in 2021 and 2022, and opened in NYC and LA in Sept. 2022. Screened for this review in connection with two special screenings: Feb. 16, 2023, at Anderson Collection, Stanford University, Palo Alto, followed by a Q&A with Alysa Nahmias, Jesse Krimes, Russell Craig, Gilberto Rivera, and Jared Owens; and Feb. 17 at Roxie Theater, San Francisco, Followed by a Q&A with Nahmias, Krimes, Craig, Rivera, and Owens, moderated by Ear Hustle podcast hosts Nigel Poor and formerly incarcerated co-founder Earlonne Woods.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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