Art

Illuminating the Lives of Women Battered by the Criminal Justice System

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It helps to pay more than one visit to “Women Under Siege: It’s Happening Right Here,” a compact but wrenching group show at the feminist collective Ceres Gallery in Chelsea, if only to read, process, and mourn the stories of women trapped in the mesh of sexist laws, courts, and prisons to which each of the 25 works, by as many artists, responds.

There’s a lot to take in, including some cases that made national news. One is that of Purvi Patel, charged with feticide in Indiana after a stillbirth at home and sentenced to twenty years in prison; she spent a year behind bars before the main conviction was reversed in 2016. A mounted paper collage by Marilyn Kiss, a Staten Island artist, centers a three-headed Mike Pence — the former Indiana governor and newly sworn-in vice president — amid images of Patel, with the warning “Purvi Patel Could Be Just the Beginning.”

Another familiar name is Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman sentenced to twenty years in 2012 on aggravated assault charges for firing a warning shot in the direction of her threatening, abusive husband; she accepted a plea deal that led to her release in 2015, but she remains a convicted felon. The New York artist Lynne Mayocole honors her with a mask-like sculpture that revolves on its pedestal: The front shows Alexander’s face in a Pietà-like expression, while the back is divided, dollhouse-style, into small scenes with printed captions that retell her story.

But most of these cases are less known; curator Susan Grabel compiled them thanks to advocacy projects such as UltraViolet and survivedandpunished.org. “It’s important to tell these stories and give a face to them,” Grabel says. Each one presents its own shocking details: Samantha Burton, of Tallahassee, confined by court order to hospital after symptoms of pre-mature labor; Regina McKnight, of South Carolina, charged with homicide after a stillbirth on grounds of drug use; and other women from across the country, often prosecuted for “failure to protect” a fetus or, in some instances, to protect their children from the partner who abused them as well. Beside each work, in lieu of standard wall text, is the artist’s summary of the case. “I didn’t want art-speak up there,” says Grabel. “This is about the women and their stories.”

A few of the subjects are left anonymous, either at their own or their lawyers’ request or by artist discretion. Two, however, wrote replies that are posted beside the work that honors them. One is Barbara Sheehan, a Queens woman who was acquitted of the murder of her abusive husband, a police sergeant, but sentenced to five years for possession of his gun; in the show, painter Elizabeth Downer Riker depicts her before her suburban-style single-story house, holding her two children close. In her reply, Sheehan, who is due for release in March, describes her frustration with the criminal justice system and her plans, once freed, to advocate for victims of domestic violence.

Another, Tondalao Hall, is midway through a thirty-year sentence in Oklahoma for failure to protect her children from her then-boyfriend, who got ten years after pleading guilty to child abuse and served only two. Grabel’s own contribution to the show is a sober print with text that points out this disparity (Hall took a “blind plea deal” without knowing what her sentence would be). In a handwritten note from prison to Grabel, Hall writes, “Thank you so much for not forgetting about me. I live by the truth will set you free….When I do get out I want to help other women or anyone who is treated unjustly.”

Grabel, a sculptor and printmaker in her seventies, is based on Staten Island. She works on social themes, including consumerism, homelessness, alienation, and, most recently, aging women’s bodies, using such techniques as cast-paper sculptures, collagraphs, and 3-D printing. Grabel has also been involved for decades in the feminist art milieu that emerged in the 1970s, crystallizing in cooperative galleries, feminist education programs, and other alternative spaces. One of these was the New York Feminist Art Institute, founded in 1979 by a group including the sculptor Nancy Azara and painter Miriam Schapiro. Though the institute closed in 1990, the Ceres Gallery, which began under its auspices, carries on both the politics and the spirit of women’s self-reliance of that time.

Indeed, Grabel’s inspiration for “Women Under Siege” came from a 2013 group show at Ceres with the self-explanatory title “Meet My Uterus,” as well as from the discussions that ensued with activists for women’s rights in the criminal justice system, which brought home to her the extent of the crisis. In 2015, Grabel sent out capsule stories of women to feature to some 100 artists, including the 53 members of Ceres (who, by the gallery’s rules, can submit work to any group show it holds), inviting those interested to pick the story that most resonated with them, research it further, and make whatever piece of art it inspired.

Loren Dann, a painter who lives near Philadelphia, produced one of the strongest and most jarring pieces. The image, in oil on vintage paper, shows a woman’s midsection that has been sliced off at the upper torso and legs. Her belly, too, has been opened to reveal a grown fetus, in the manner of Damien Hirst’s The Virgin Mother sculpture but with a much more clear and drastic message, with blood-like streaks of red paint and a short text in pencil. It addresses the case of Laura Pemberton, a Florida woman who underwent a court-ordered cesarean section in 1999. “What bothered me the most is how they treated her like a slab of meat,” says Dann, who researched the case, including consulting doctors, to form her impressions. “I pictured these men like at a butcher shop, discussing how this baby was going to come out of her.”

Another strong entry comes from Montauk-based Anne Drager, whose litho-inked woodcut, in red and pink against a black background, depicts a woman giving birth alone in a prison cell — precisely what happened to Kari Parsons, a Maryland inmate, in 2005. Despite horrific prison neglect, the fact that mother and baby survived made this one of the less violent cases that Grabel offered, says Drager, and thus a bit easier to take on. “It was an artistic challenge to express difficult emotions,” Drager says. “I chose one of the more benign cases, because you have to get into it a little when you’re doing the work.”

The show also includes, in a separate area, an installation by New York sculptor Francine Perlman that sets texts and collages by women living in domestic violence shelters amid a field of angled doors. It deviates slightly from the central theme of sexism in criminal justice, but adds to the general urgency. At the time of this writing, most of the Ceres artists were heading to Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March on January 21. “The erosion of women’s rights has been going on for years,” says Grabel; resistance is now only more imperative. “I don’t know what form my activism is going to take,” Grabel says. “But it’s going to take something, because otherwise I’m going to burst at the seams.”

‘Women Under Siege: It’s Happening Right Here’

Through January 28

Ceres Gallery, 547 West 27th Street

212-947-6100, ceresgallery.org

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