New exhibition at the Marion Art Gallery examines prison experience

Doug Osborne-Coy
View from the Second Tier by Sarah McKenzie

"View from the Second Tier (Alcatraz)," 2022, oil and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 inches, by Sarah McKenzie.

The places and spaces of the United States prison system are the focus of an exhibition opening Friday, Oct. 14 in the Cathy and Jesse Marion Art Gallery at Rockefeller Arts Center.

“To See Inside: Examining Prison Architecture” includes eight paintings of prison spaces by Sarah McKenzie, the 2021 recipient of the Marion International Fellowship for the Visual and Performing Arts, as well as art work and creative writing by 18 artists affiliated with the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative. Collectively they reflect on the places and spaces of the U.S. prison system and its impact on the people confined within it.

McKenzie will present a gallery talk during the opening reception on Oct.14 at 7 p.m. The reception runs from 6 to 9 p.m. The exhibition is on display through Nov. 18.

The Marion Art Gallery is located on the main level of Rockefeller Arts Center on the Fredonia campus at  280 Central Ave. The exhibition and reception are free and open to the public.

Through a grant established through the Fredonia College Foundation and endowed by SUNY Fredonia alumna Cathy and Jesse Marion, McKenzie was able to spend the last 18 months researching and photographing prison architecture, interviewing people about their experiences inside the U.S. carceral system and creating a new series of paintings exploring these institutional spaces that are largely hidden away from mainstream society.

Her work led her to begin teaching with the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative, a program led by Executive Director Ashley Hamilton, which offers a range of arts-based programming throughout the Colorado Department of Corrections. For the exhibition, McKenzie presents her paintings in conjunction with artworks and creative writings by 18 incarcerated artists, all of whom she had met through her work with the Prison Arts Initiative.

painting of prison cell
Luther Hampson, "Untitled," 2021, watercolor

The 18 artists include Anonymous, Hector Castillo, Anthony Cole, William Daniels, Ryan Flint, JR Gilbertson, Victor Gonzales, Luther Hampson, Lynell Hill, Matthew LaBonte, Raul Luevano, Jose Mandujano, Joseph Taylor McGill, Justin Moore, Mario Rios, Mike Severson, Billy Scott, and Clinton Thomas. Among the visual arts mediums are drawings, paintings, and a soundscape which document life in prison and express longing for freedom.

McKenzie’s paintings examine the architectural structures we build and the way these structures change over time in response to socio-economic, cultural, and political shifts. Her past series have focused on suburban sprawl, construction sites, and abandoned factories.

In 2020 she became interested in exploring and painting prison interiors, in part because prisons and museums occupy opposite ends of the societal spectrum. Among McKenzie’s paintings in the Marion Art Gallery exhibition are a view of a small prison yard with high concrete walls titled "Some Days the Sky is Just a Ceiling” and an optical perspective interior featuring layers of prison bars titled “View from the Second Tier.”

McKenzie’s work has been exhibited at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Yale School of Architecture, the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, Aspen Art Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, among other venues.

Her paintings have also been featured in Art in America, The New York Times, Denver Post, Huffington Post, Dwell Magazine and New American Paintings. In 2012, McKenzie received a Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Grant. In 2019, she received the Alexander Rutsch Award for Painting. McKenzie is represented in Denver by David B. Smith Gallery. She lives and works in Boulder, Colo.

“To See Inside: Examining Prison Architecture" is supported by the Fredonia College Foundation’s Cathy and Jesse Marion Endowment Fund and the Friends of Rockefeller Arts Center. To schedule a group tour of the exhibition, contact Marion Art Gallery Director Barbara Räcker via email or call 716-673-4897. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 4 p.m., Friday and Saturday from noon to 6 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. 

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