Art Against the Odds / the Art of John Tyson

Exhibtion Review Apr 26, 2024

Art Against the Odds: Wisconsin Prison Art
When Push Comes to Shove: The Art of John Tyson

by Carol Emmons

Art Against the Odds, curated by Debra Brehmer and Paul Salsieder of the Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art, showcases works by over 60 artists from among Wisconsin’s 36 adult correctional facilities. The exhibition was awarded the Wisconsin Visual Art Achievement Award for a 2023 exhibition.

The catalog states that the exhibit:

. . . defines art making as not only a creative pastime but a life-saving tool of self-definition for those who are removed from society. . . . This is not to deny the pain inflicted by crime, nor the lingering impact on victims, but to privilege redemption and the potential expansiveness of the human spirit to provide space for hope. Without hope, there is no humanity.

The exhibition is grouped into subtopics like “Other Places: Landscapes” and “A Sense of Time: Seriality.” This approach integrates the place of production and artistic outcomes, and is supported by information about the carceral system encouraging viewers to draw their own conclusions. Letters from participants and a space for writing notes to the artists are also featured.

The artworks vary tremendously in style, media, and subject matter, from representational works in traditional genres (portrait, landscape) to experimental works in inventive media. Many artists are shown in depth, including Joshua Gresl’s “Milk Monsters” (torn milk and juice cartons); M. Winston’s house constructions (acrylic paint, paper, beads, collaged food boxes, gravel, cotton, toothpicks, beans, and cardboard); and 200 of John Tyson’s untitled targets (ink on paper).

Some works are accompanied by short artist statements describing their circumstances or intent, and are striking in their honesty. Sarah Demerath’s lyrical abstract circles in colored ink are in fact autobiographical references to eyes, her notes linking them to journal entries. Dominic Marak’s Mug Shots couple detailed pencil drawings of inmates and their collage portraits made of junk food wrappers. Marak says, “I draw a parallel between society’s detritus and the way society disposes of people within its prisons.” Many of the artists iterate artmaking as a way of coping and finding purpose.

Creativity is inherently about inventiveness, but the constraints under which these artists work invite special notice. Carceral institutions place limits on almost everything—size, quantity, materials—and much work is necessarily destroyed.

In 1994 the critic Arlene Croce discussed Bill T. Jones’ dance Still/Here that incorporated videos of terminally ill people. She called it “victim art,” and potentially “intolerably voyeuristic.” Her essay—questioning the intersection of art and social utility—generated considerable furor.

While acknowledging the realities of incarceration, Art Against the Odds avoids the pitfalls of “victim art.” First, the artists have agency: despite constraints, they are creating their own art for their own purposes. Additionally, the curatorial approach does not pontificate, nor does it patronize or romanticize incarcerated people. It does not devolve into a sociological polemic using art as mere window dressing, but treats the participants with respect as individual makers, and displays the work professionally with care and intelligence.

A related survey of John Tyson’s work is featured at newARTSpace in De Pere.  Curated by gallerists David Graham and Terri Warpinski, When Push Comes to Shove includes some target forms as seen at the Neville but foregrounds Tyson’s text work. It is enhanced by a vignette of his home studio, including books from his diverse collection.

When Push Comes to Shove: The Art of John Tyson at newARTSpace (detail)

His works are often labor-intensive, layering marks in ink or graphite. Having been diagnosed with cancer while in prison, Tyson notes he was “shell shocked . . . claustrophobic” and the repetitive practice provided a calming ritual.

For 9 Pieces Tyson created letters in reverse by densely filling the stenciled background with graphite. His angular changes of direction create a crystalline field similar to frost on a window, and shifting light and air currents enliven the surfaces with a leaden glimmer. The voice of the prosaic stencils speaks of utility and authority, powerfully juxtaposed with the poignancy of the text.

John Tyson 9 Pieces (2023) graphite on paper

He employs fragments from readings, songs, and his own thoughts. They range from quotation (“I did not enter/into silence/silence captured me” from Ezra Pound) to his own constructions (“imagine/ an argument/with/Emily D. /she has refused/yr skateboard/& you have mailed/all/her envelopes” and the poetic evocations of 9 Pieces.

Despite the complex circumstances of the artists, both these exhibitions are celebrations of ingenuity and resilience. The catalog preface argues art: “is a means to expressively render a self that is complex, often conflicted, and fully human. . . . This project maintains that art, freedom and justice go hand in hand.”

Also on view at newARTSpace is still life: holding sound: Art Works by Marjorie Mau, a splendid selection resonating in manifold ways with Tyson’s work.

Art Against the Odds: Wisconsin Prison Art Neville Public Museum, Green Bay > May 19

When Push Comes to Shove: The Art of John Tyson newARTSpace, De Pere > May 18

Art Against the Odds: Wisconsin Prison Art (catalog source)

Arlene Croce “Discussing the Undiscussable” The New Yorker December 26, 1994  – January 2, 1995, pp. 54 – 60.

Carol Emmons is an installation artist and Professor Emerita of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.


Carol Emmons

Carol Emmons is an installation artist and Professor Emerita of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.