Women on the Outside / Pretty Girl Charged with Clever Swindle

Women on the Outside Pretty Girl Charged with Clever Swindle

Photoville

New York, NY

September 21 – 25, 2016

As I enter Photoville’s modular venue via Water Street, Women on the Outside is immediately to my left, and Pretty Girl Charged with Clever Swindle to my right. Is this a happy accident or curatorial choice? Either way, I consider them to be companion exhibitions, each focusing on gender and the criminal justice system. Pretty Girl Charged with Clever Swindle, curated by Quinn Berkman and Michael Lorenzini, comprises early 20th-century (black and white) mug shots of women culled from the NYC Municipal Archives, while Women on the Outside is a thoroughly contemporary multimedia installation documenting the everyday lives of women who emotionally and financially support incarcerated loved ones—husbands, fathers, brothers, sons. How perfect (and perfectly ironic) that the exhibition spaces are shipping containers (about 50 of Photoville’s 60+ exhibitions are housed in re-purposed shipping containers: small, confined art cell-blocks). When Photoville is teeming with people, I experience the containers as positively oppressive—I am repeatedly trapped inside, boxed in and working to break out. In context, it’s impossible to avoid the prison metaphor. Indeed, one is inspired to stretch that metaphor to consider the ways in which gender itself is its own limited—and limiting—container.

Pretty Girl is compelling, in part, for how it documents the inception of the modern mug shot. Particularly striking are the old Brooklyn stand-ups, some of which are reproduced larger-than-life-size. The stand-up of Bessie Globllo (attempted grand larceny, 1947) is, by today’s standards, beguiling and peculiar: we see her from head to toe, dressed in a fur coat, hat, and pearls. She holds a purse, not a placard. That we might suggest she does not “look like” a criminal connotes specious assumptions about gender, appearance, and criminality, assumptions that the title of the exhibition, excerpted from a newspaper report about swindler Sadie Schoen, questions from the outset. The reporter’s tone and diction (the infantilizing “girl,” the condescending “pretty”) registers surprise that a girl—a pretty one, at that—is clever enough to pull off a swindle. Rendering Globllo’s full body as a life-sized print makes it impossible to dismiss her simply as a historical curiosity or diminutive anachronism. Instead, we are encouraged to regard her as human, vulnerable.

Interspersed among these large reproductions are vertical columns of framed postcards, which viewers can touch and turn. One side portrays a mug shot diptych, and the other the subject’s Bertillon measurements. (Alphonse Bertillon, a 19th century French police officer, developed and standardized a method of identification that consisted not only of photographs but also a description and complete measurements.) We don’t learn much about these women, but we know their sizes. Detective’s notes about their occupations and alleged crimes offer us a glimpse into their lives, into the (few) occupations open to women in the first half of the 20th century, and imaginative fuel for speculation about what led to their arrests. As the exhibition text asserts, “Life was never easy for women in New York and the way they were treated by the law and the press varied according to their social class. Was it poverty or hysteria? Was she an ‘idle housewife’ or a ‘hard-working stenographer’? Was it ‘kleptomania’ or ‘grand larceny’?” Pretty Girl implies that law and order is never neutral—that the criminal justice system was and remains an often racist, classist, and sexist institution. The archival images implicitly make connections between criminality and sociality that projects like Women on the Outside continue to investigate and interrogate.

Kristal Bush is a compelling cornerstone of Women on the Outside. At the age of only 27, Bush has been visiting loved ones on the inside for 22 years. In addition to her full-time job as a social worker and her work as the legal guardian of her incarcerated brother’s son, she is the co-owner (with her mother, Crystal Speaks) of Bridging the Gap, which offers door-to-door van service for families visiting prisons across Pennsylvania, a state in which nearly half of the inmates are black. Bush is a part of every aspect of this multi-faceted exhibition. As I enter the container, I read the reproduced Pennsylvania Department of Corrections visitation rules by which Bush must abide each time she visits a prison. Hers is one of the various portraits depicting women on the outside, and her bag of prison visitation photographs is one of the dozen object portraits on display. Each object represents separation and connection: each belongs to a woman on the outside and serves as a metonymic reminder of the man on the inside. Instead of Bertillon measurements, this exhibition tracks different kinds of data: miles travelled, time spent, money invested. One graphic includes 26 small maps for the 26 prisons to illustrate just how far they are from where the inmates were tried, and from where the women must travel on visitation days. The distance often exceeds a 3-hour drive each way—hence the need for, and success of, Bridging the Gap.   

This exhibition maps out the tolls such distances take on families. Women make these prison visits regularly, and the geographical and emotional cartographies are animated by a video installation at the rear of the container. Here, we can watch footage (with natural sound, no explanatory voice-overs) of the women’s road trips. The van becomes a veritable metal container exhibition with various aspects of the women’s journeys on display. At times, the camera lens shifts focus from the women and their (inter)actions to the view outside the windshield as the landscape slowly but surely morphs from the streets of Philadelphia to the mountainous terrain of rural Pennsylvania. There is much to process here. The visual –and emotional—overload is mimicked by the very exhibition that refuses to be contained to the inside of the space, and uses the container’s exterior as an extra wall. Here, next to a recent portrait of Bush, is an arrangement of approximately two dozen prison visitation photographs that span most of her life. It’s too much. And that’s the point. While there is no exhibition text that tells us what these pictures are, we’ve seen enough on the inside to know.

The exhibitions tackle equally serious subjects, but I note that spectators are amused, often giggling, in Pretty Girl while comparatively sombre in Women on the Outside. I attribute the difference to historical distance: we wonder at the outdated pictures and procedures, and smile at the antiquated fashions. Despite the century that separates them, both exhibits highlight the interconnected dynamics of gender, race, and power as they play out in the complex network of the criminal justice system in the United States—what Zara Katz and Lisa Riordan Seville have elsewhere called an “incarceration nation.” The mug shots featured in Pretty Girl are official records that were taken by anonymous photographers employed by the city; the photographs, videos, and maps of Women on the Outside were created by a team of producers, photographers, videographers, and journalists (Katz, Riordan Seville, Zora J. Murff, Michael Krisch, Mark Hansen, Dalit Shalom) in a collaborative effort not only between and among themselves, but also (crucially) with their subjects. Women on the Outside blurs the boundary between storytellers and subjects by treating the female subjects as insiders—as tellers of their own tales. Pretty Girl demarcates the clear line between city photographer and putative lady criminal—between authority and the women subject to it. Women on the Outside invites women to be authorities on their own lives.