art, gender, photography, stereotypes, violence


The Guardian

Photo: Evan Schwartz

Photo: Evan Schwartz

Captain Wright, one of the subjects in transgender artist Ria Brodell’s paintings, lived until his death in 1834 with Mrs Wright and an abundance of rabbits. They were “respectable gentlefolks”, according to Brodell’s extensive research. When Captain Wright died, his neighbors were astonished to learn that he had a body that would be assigned as female. Demoted to a “creature” by the newspaper, his body attracted a crowd of curious spectators. Captain Wright is one in Brodell’s series Butch Heroes, which reimagines historic men who were assigned as female in the format of Catholic holy cards. The portraits – some of which are currently on view at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle as part of the show Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects – are touching and amusing at times. They speak eloquently to the fraught history and present of the transgender community.

It’s an interesting moment for trans art in the US, as arts organizations large and small are finally bringing recognition to an ingenuous people and powerful movement. The Museum of the City of New York features Gay Gotham, a show that chronicles queer creative networks in 20th-century New York, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum for Gay and Lesbian Art is in the process of nearly doubling its footprint. It also recently created the Hunter O’Hanian Diversity Art Fund to collect artworks from primarily female and transgender artists. Yet Donald Trump’s election has given the LGBTQ community new reasons to fear for their safety. Mike Pence advocates for “gay conversion therapy” and Trump has pledged to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which would give businesses and landlords the right to discriminate against gay and transgender people. Since the election, 43 anti-LGBTQ incidents have already been reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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art, criminal justice, photography

Artists Grapple With America’s Prison System

“Angola Prison, 1980,” by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick.

The New York Times, March 11, 2016

By Sabine Heinlein

For several weeks in February and March, the Whitney Museum’s fifth-floor gallery has been drenched in the slamming of gates, the rattling of keys and the bellowing of prisoners and guards. The artist Andrea Fraser recorded the sounds at Sing Sing, the infamous prison 34 miles up the Hudson River, then fed them into a gallery that’s roughly the same size as the prison’s A Block.

“Down the River,” her commanding work, alludes to the practice of separating slaves — and prisoners to this day — from their families and sentencing them to backbreaking labor on the South’s cotton plantations. It is a show that prods viewers to consider “the institutional and symbolic polarization that increasingly defines American society,” Ms. Fraser said.

Artists around the country are grappling with America’s incarceration system, as a subject and a social force. Like Ms. Fraser, Cameron Rowland’s show at Artists Space engaged a privileged art world with the economic mechanisms behind mass incarceration, focusing on how our society benefits from prisoners’ labor.

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art, interview, outsiders

A Talk with a Modern-Day Petroglyphist

My second piece for Hyperallergic, out today:

Three years ago, the artist Kevin Sudeith left New York City to create stone carvings on immovable rock outcroppings across Canada and the continental US. A modern-day petroglyphist, he has also created more than two dozens images on rocks in undisclosed locations in New York. While this isn’t exactly legal, it can be viewed as a kind of thoughtful and permanent graffiti. (And speaking of illegality and disclosure: When I buried my cat Mietzi in my Queens backyard, Sudeith carved a tombstone for her.)

Sudeith’s work primarily documents the lives and stories of people who live near the carving sites. Other petroglyphs pointedly contrast with the ancient subject matter of his art form by depicting satellites and space vehicles.

In a world exceedingly characterized by high-speed technology, virtual reality, and surveillance, Sudeith’s carvings of human narratives — of human struggles and rewards — unfold slowly, both in their making and in that they’re meant to be discovered rather than exhibited. The narratives on stone beg to be touched and felt, but for the most part are hard to access. The relative inapproachability of the works collides with an art world that believes it can access (and acquire) everything at its fingertips.

Kevin Sudeith’s first solo show of pigmented impressions of his carvings, photos, and time-lapse video opened earlier this month at 308 at 156 Project Artspace in Manhattan. I spoke with him about the exhibition and his work.

Sabine Heinlein: What’s in your backpack?

Kevin Sudeith: My van is one big kit. For carving, I have two backpacks: one for heavy duty tools and one for lighter power tools and hand tools, as well as chalk for drawing compositions. There is a photography kit for shooting time lapse and a big beanbag with colors, brushes, pressing tools, and an old-fashioned painters palette. I have a large and a small tent, a tub of cooking supplies, and a couple of Persian rugs because they’re great for camping. Then there’s the general survival kit with compasses, knives, first aid, and a gun, and the tuck sack with yogurt, homemade jerky, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, cured meats, nuts, dried fruits, and homemade preserves from friends.


Kevin Sudeith, “Original European Settlers,” Ingomar, MT (2010)

SH: It seems like much of your work is based on narratives you discover coincidentally. How do you come up with your motifs?

KS: I had a vague invitation to Ingomar, MT, population: 7. I was eating breakfast in the cafe when a man in his 70s barks out, “WHOSE VAN IS THAT OUT THERE!?!” I jumped up to say, “Oh, that’s mine … ” He bellowed, “WHAT ARE YA SELLIN’?!” I told him I’m an artist, and he looked at me real hard and said, “Are you drawing unemployment?” Surprised, I stammered, “No! I live by my own means.” I showed him my portfolio, and he said, “I’ve got some rocks. I’ll take you out there.”

He had the best rocks for 100 miles, and we became great friends. I helped him with his farming, and he let me camp and carve on his land. A few weeks later, when I was showing his son my carvings, he asked whether I could carve his grandparent’s wedding photo. His grandparents were the original European settlers on the land where I was working. His grandfather had come from Czechoslovakia in 1905 and homesteaded in Montana. He wrote back to Czechoslovakia, and his village sent him a girl. They were married at the train station and a photo was taken. They were married for 50 years and had nine kids.

Another time I was making a jerky and cheese sandwich in my van when a guy in a ’70s Suburban pulled up for a chat. He asked me if I do memorials or gravestones. (Oddly, this had not occurred to me.) He said a little girl was buried on his land, and he wanted to mark the spot. I thought it was his niece or granddaughter, but it turned out she’d died in 1904, as her family passed through town. No one knew her name, only that her parents were artists. As the sun set over the glacial moraine, he showed me the one big stone that seemed to adorn three graves. Before I left town I carved “Daughter of Artists 1900–1904” in the pouring rain.

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art, photography, prison

Alyse Emdur: Fantasy Behind Bars

(This interview first appeared on Art in America on 02/19/2013.)

By Sabine Heinlein

When L.A.-based photographer Alyse Emdur was a little girl she would accompany her mother and sister to prison to visit her older brother, who was serving time for car theft and drug possession. In 2005 she came across a picture of herself and her brother posing in front of a romantic tropical beach scene. Other photos show her brother with and without family members in front of a bucolic stream, a cozy cottage and lush greenery. The hand-painted murals in prison classrooms and portrait studios record fantasies of freedom. To the prisoners and their families these scenes keep at bay the intense feelings of powerlessness, shame and loss caused by crime and incarceration.

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For the images compiled in her new book Prison Landscapes (Four Corners, January 2013), Emdur revisited this childhood experience. She contacted prisoners via pen pal websites and asked them for existing photographs of them and their families posing in front of idyllic backdrops. Prison Landscapes combines this collection with Emdur’s own photographs. She gained access to ten correctional facilities in Pennsylvania, New York and Florida to create new pictures of hand-painted backdrops in their “natural” prison environment. (One should add that gaining access to prisons has become increasingly difficult for journalists and documentarians. Tough-on-crime policies, mass incarceration, prison overcrowding and accusations of human rights violations have caused administrators to tighten the lid.)

The book, which also includes her correspondence with the prisoners and an interview with one of the inmates who paints the photo backdrops, sheds light on an oppressive environment that takes incredible pains to remain unseen.

SABINE HEINLEIN What did it feel like to return to prison and re-create scenes from your childhood visits?

ALYSE EMDUR My experience with the backdrops as a child was very visceral and very emotional. I thought, “Why would I be standing in front of such a happy backdrop in such a sad place?” For my book, I was going in the visiting rooms when they were empty, with a prison administrator and a prison guard. Observing these backdrops led me to imagine all the people and the stories that had played out in front of the backdrops.

HEINLEIN What role does the administration play? Who decides what goes on those walls and into the pictures?

EMDUR Nearly all the backdrops are landscapes-which is a pretty big restriction in itself. The mural artists have the freedom to choose whatever landscape they want, but there’ll definitely be requests by the inmates. There are certain rules: You can’t use gang colors or offensive imagery. So the backdrops reveal the control that prisons have on the representation of prisoners and prisons. Inmate photographers are given explicit instructions to not show the visiting room, to only show the backdrop.

HEINLEIN Did you see any subversive elements in the paintings?

EMDUR They don’t put intentionally subversive messages in the backdrops, but the prisoners posing in front of the backdrops use humor, like they’ll hold up a plastic fish or use props like a backpack. There was a painting of a casino in Las Vegas. One prisoner is touching the backdrop with his hand to acknowledge that it is an illusion. One painting had a blinged-out car with gold rims. But in general, the visiting room is a sacred place where the prisoners have an opportunity to spend time with their loved ones. For the painters, the backdrops are a way to contribute to that special space.

HEINLEIN Yet your pictures emphasize the tragedy of America’s mass incarceration and how little we know about what goes on behind bars. What kind of responses have you gotten from people?

EMDUR About half of the prisoners that I invited to contribute accepted my invitation. But some people weren’t comfortable having their images published because they aren’t proud of the fact that they are in prison. (Not that those who participated are proud of that fact.) While photographing in prisons, some of the staff expressed that they didn’t see value in the paintings. To them they are an amateur’s attempt at painting. However, some of the administrators were very proud of the backdrops, almost like a school principal is proud of his or her students. They recognize art’s potential to uplift the spirit. In terms of outside viewers, for so many Americans these images have been unknown because although there are millions of them circulating amongst families, only people who personally know prisoners have seen them. Many family members really appreciate these backdrops as a humane gesture. Others don’t even notice the backdrops. The backdrops are an ordinary part of prison life; murals are everywhere in prisons—in hallways and in classrooms.

And then, of course, some viewers find the images uncomfortable. We are culturally ingrained to look at prisoners in a [one-dimensional] way. This book is an affirmation of the humanity of prisoners, which is taboo, and for some, uncomfortable. Continue reading

art, racism, violence

A Black Outsider Artist in a White Art World

(This piece originally appeared on

By Sabine Heinlein

I recently went to the National Arts Club to watch All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, a documentary about a 68-year-old African-American outsider artist, which is currently being screened at various locations in New York.

I had come across Rembert’s leather paintings at the most recent Outsider Art Fair. I was struck by the artist’s decorative, almost ornamental treatment of gruesome subject matter. Rembert’s multihued cotton-field paintings depicting women and men performing tedious, backbreaking labor are almost cheerful, considering the theme of racial oppression and injustice. His repetitive handling of characters and paint gives his work a patterned feel reminiscent of some children’s books. Yet the contrasts are fierce and unforgettable. The painting “All Me II” (2002) portrays countless prisoners in a chain gang holding baby blue hammers for breaking rocks. While there is something whimsical about the depiction of the prisoners, the way they are crammed onto the leather canvas, their bodies interlocking, suggests the iconic images of Auschwitz’s mass graves. People considered dead while still alive.

The narratives of Rembert’s impoverished childhood, his time in prison, and the emotional and physical torture he had to endure at the hands of whites are all drawn from his “photographic memory,” as the artist explained during the Q&A following the screening of All Me at the National Arts Club. Joining Rembert on the panel were the filmmaker, Vivian Ducat, her husband and producer, Ray Segal, and Sharyn Grossman, the club’s chairwoman, who had organized the event. Rembert should by all rights “be an angry man,” Grossman said, “but he is a happy human being.” As if trying to fit America’s complex and violent race relations into a comfortable frame, Grossman repeated her statement almost verbatim twice before the end of the panel.

Why did this notion make me uncomfortable? Because I wondered whether this primarily white audience would still like Rembert if he were angry. Would we shun him? Lock him up?

Winfred Rembert answering questions at the National Arts Club (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Winfred Rembert answering questions at the National Arts Club (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

There was another, more immediate notion that made me sad. In the film, Rembert appears to be respected and well liked in his African-American community, but it is clear that his work does not get the same recognition there as it does from the predominantly white, art-loving community that has adopted him. “I would love to be recognized by my own people,” Rembert said to the audience at the Arts Club.

After having written a book about three former prisoners of color, I have to admit that I find myself very sensitive to racial incongruities. Many of my concerns played out during the Q&A. It was evident that the predominantly white audience preferred to ask art-related questions rather than confront the artist’s dire subject matter.

Referring to the repetitive dots of white paint in his cotton-field paintings, a woman in the audience asked Rembert whether he had ever seen “the aboriginal paintings with the white dots.”

“No, ma’am, I have not,” Rembert responded politely.

“Have you ever been to an art museum?” another white woman wanted to know.

“Ten years ago I didn’t even know who [Horace] Pippins was,” he responded. “I’m just now trying to see what other artists are doing.”

Someone else asked whether his methods have changed over the years. Rembert explained that his paintings have become more colorful because until recently leather dyes — regular paint tends to crack on leather — were only available in very limited colors.

“The color white just came along in the past five years,” he said.

Rembert literally works through his torturous memories from rural Georgia. Repetitive, relentless, perfectionist, and clean, his paintings have a ritualistic, obsessive-compulsive quality. (The artist, by the way, travels from his home in New Haven to his exhibitions in New York with a large piece of marble so he can punch, carve, and stamp dots into leather at night in his hotel room without waking his wife, Patsy.)

Winfred Rembert, "The Lynching" (1999), panel 1 of 3, dye on carved and tooled leather, each panel: 35 x 33 in (click to enlarge) (image via

Winfred Rembert, “The Lynching” (1999), panel 1 of 3, dye on carved and tooled leather, each panel: 35 x 33 in (click to enlarge) (image via Hudson River Museum)

Rembert suffered from alienation and torture at the hands of whites for almost as long as he can remember. As a child his mother was told, in front of him, by one of the white brothers who owned the convenience store in his hometown that her son would “never be a damn thing.” His “mama” advised him that “if white folks do you wrong, let them do it.” In the ’60s, Rembert took part in civil rights demonstrations and was arrested and lynched. In the film he graphically describes how he was tied up and hung, and how one of the white cops carved into his genitals with a knife. It was when the blood ran down his legs that he remembered his mama’s advice. He survived the experience, only to be sent to prison.

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