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Exhibition Essay
December 2, 2013

Juvenile In Justice: The Power of Art

About the Author
Katie Whittaker

See the exhibition here

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In my art classes in high school and college, I was always confronted with variations on the same question – “what does it mean?” There were times where I felt that I had created a piece with a strong meaning, but it was obscured in unnecessary elements. Even when looking at other accomplished artists, sometimes the significance was so abstract that I could barely feel it. But InLiquid’s exhibition, Juvenile In Justice, leaves viewers with a sense of duty and purpose. Three artists present a unique approach to difficult but important questions on issues of violence, incarceration, and what the future might hold, even though they do not always have the answers.
Juvenile In Justice is taking place in three exhibition spaces of Crane Arts: the Icebox Project Space, The Grey Area, and the Big Hall, inhabited by artists Richard Ross, Roberto Lugo, and Mat Tomezsko. Mat Tomezsko’s series of 94 paintings, entitled There Is No, is a representation of a study about homicide, and how for every victim of homicide, 94 people are affected, including Tomezsko. His work does a great job of encompassing a feeling from a variety of angles and perspectives, giving it a sense of unity through chaos and destruction. The colors also appear heavy, portraying an emotional complexity that comes with tragedy, and as I viewed the series, I wondered if this process could serve as a therapeutic release for all of those affected by similar tragedies.
While art has certainly been used as a vehicle for social change in the past, it seems to be particularly impactful in this exhibition not only because of the strong social message it conveys, but also because of its call for action. During the opening reception, I heard viewers describe the exhibition as “profound,” “startling,” and “thought-provoking,” and while the works of art displayed the technical prowess required to make a stunning piece of art, they also had the power to take the viewing experience one step further. To me, it was impossible to not consider all of the issues the artists present, both in their personal contexts and in the broader context of the community. It was most prominent in Lugo’s work. He poured his personal experiences into his ceramics, and because it was shown in his hometown, I felt immersed in the pieces.
In Lugo’s talk at the reception, he referred to his childhood, surrounded by the expectation of eventually ending up in jail. He used art and creativity as motivation, even when some tried to stifle his creativity. Lugo is a brilliant example of the power art can have, not as a band-aid, but as a truly powerful force. His art juxtaposes rival gangs in beautiful ceramics, and in doing so, he asks what would happen if they worked together for positive change instead of destruction. Posted on the wall among his pieces is a truly touching letter from Lugo’s incarcerated brother, stating his pride and admiration for Lugo. Through art, Lugo continually poses queries about what art can do for youth in critical situations around the world.
Richard Ross’ portraits illuminate troubled youth who are currently residing in the justice system. Each portrait is accompanied by a written description, sometimes including a quote from the portrait’s subject. The written blurbs show the range of the interviews with the incarcerated: from religion to tattoos to family life to descriptions of the dismal cells in which many youths find themselves. Despite the participants’ obscured faces, the images are raw, almost mysterious, yet somehow relatable, as though each person could be someone I knew. I believe this effect can be explained in Ross’ approach to the kids. He allows them to take a seat, then he sits below them on the floor in a non-threatening position. He demonstrated this for me, and as I sat in my chair, I found myself in a position of authority, and I imagined that the kids felt at least a little respect just from this strategic body positioning, a feeling they evidently don’t experience very often. One kid even stated, “I want respect. I don’t usually get that here.” Through these strong images and words, Ross gives us insight to the system and those stuck within it. During the reception, he told us that humiliating and dehumanizing these kids is more common than we think. We have failed them, but we can use art as a means to level the playing field, because “the art and the person are worthwhile.”
However, just because these artists are presenting us with these important questions does not mean they are giving us the answers. I labored over this on my commute home after the opening reception. How is it possible to reconcile all of these issues within the framework of a broken or disjointed community? Who becomes the role model for these kids, or if they are already provided with a sturdy home base, how can they be guided towards the constructive instead of the destructive?
Of course, the idea of art’s life-changing ability is ever-present, and can be a strong solution for many youth, as evidenced in Roberto Lugo. But how can it be a solution if the school system is spurning the arts in budget cuts? Perhaps this is where the panel discussion and community conversation on December 3 will help. These will be excellent opportunities to continue the dialogue within the community, and to further raise awareness while giving a forum for moving forward with productive and beneficial ideas.
Juvenile In Justice will be at Crane Arts until December 12
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