Amy Elkins: Black is the Day, Black is the Night & Parting Words

  May 9 - July 5

On view: May 8 - July 5, 2015
Opening Reception: Friday, May 8 5:30 - 8pm

Black is the Day, Black is the Night is a conceptual exploration into the many facets of human identity using notions of time, accumulation, memory and distance through personal correspondence with men serving life and death row sentences in some of the most maximum security prisons in the U.S., all of which had served between 13-26 years at point of contact.

"I have asked myself if I have rather become so used to the company of my solitude that I no longer feel the passing of years and instead am grateful to have life pass with my every moment of existence as if the years were simply minutes."

On average these men spend 22-1/2 hours a day in solitary cells roughly 6’x9’; not only facing their own mortality, but doing so in total isolation. I often wondered how that would impact one’s notion of reality, of self-identity or even of their own memories outside of such an environment? Did they embrace the mind of a dreamer, the mind of a thinker or succumb to their bleak environment and allow mental, physical and emotional collapse? Did their violent impulses land them in an infinite state of vulnerability? I began writing several men to look into these complex ideas and ask first hand the impacts of such severe isolation.

Out of our letters a collaboration unfolded. I constructed images using formulas specific to each of their stories, age and years incarcerated. Through these formulas their portraits became more unrecognizable and their memories became more muddled, regurgitated and fictional with the endless passing years of their sentence. Stripped of personal context and placed in solitary cells, their sense of identity, memory and time couldn’t help but mutate. I sent these images to them, they would critique them. This went on for years. Of the seven men I originally wrote, I remain in touch with one who has been in solitary confinement since 1995 for a crime committed at 16. One was released in 2010 at the age of 30 (after 15 years in prison), three eventually opted out, one was executed in 2009, another executed in March of 2012.

"As viewers, we are invited to puzzle over an assortment of clues, including reenactments, exhibits submitted for our considerations, partial evidence, and statements both leading and misleading. The work is elegiac and provocative, asking the viewer to engage above and beyond a simple, cursory viewing of these images." - Leslie A. Martin, Aperture Foundation

"The degree of isolation her subjects experience is extreme. Of the prisoners that she has written to over the past several years, most have spent over a decade in a solitary 6 x 9 cell. Letters speak of a life where the memories of loss are equaled only by the seemingly endless time before them, unless their sentence is carried out. Elkins lost one of her pen pals in 2009 and another in 2012, whose final appeal was denied by the Supreme Court mere months before his execution. Much like the author Truman Capote’s complex experience in losing the primary source of his artwork when Perry Smith was executed while writing In Cold Blood, Elkins likely cannot help but be affected by the unique dynamic of these relationships to her subjects. Her work seems to reflect her own loss in the mix of theirs." - Bill Sullivan, American photographer and painter.

Parting Words is a visual archive of the 500+ prisoners to date executed in the state of Texas. In 2009, I began a written correspondence with several men scattered throughout the country serving death row sentences for what became an extensive project that looked into capital punishment and solitary confinement in the U.S.

While letters were exchanged between many of them for years, it was only within the first three months that the first man I wrote with was executed. He was in the state of Texas. I went online to search for more information the day of his execution and landed myself on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) website and the executions archive in all its macabre detail.

"As any intelligent artist does, Elkins appropriates and reframes state knowledge, turning the logic of a “flawed and barbaric” system in against itself.." - Pete Brook, Prison Photography

“These results are startling abstract and brutally specific. The full meaning of these utterances, which vary from concise confessions to literally, “none” are as opaque and compelling as their faces. Elkins’ project is ambitious in reach, innovative in approach and compelling in its results.. ” - Doug Dubois, American photographer and 2012 Guggenheim recipient.

"These briefest of statements resonate with the micro-narratives of entire lives, tragic crimes, and opportunities and potential squandered. The formal framework that Elkins has adopted underscores the depersonalization of incarceration and the systems sustaining capital punishment. It also heightens the sense of terrifying yet relatable banality contained within these images, an eerie recognition and identification with the human form evoked from otherwise raw, impersonal images of individuals who found themselves on the furthest ends of the spectrum of human feeling." - Leslie A. Martin, Aperture Foundation