During the winter of 1999, Jared Owens had an uncharacteristic feeling of apprehension that he just couldn’t shake. With increasing frequency, he was seeing three consecutive 1’s almost everywhere he went, and all too often, when he glanced at a clock. He convinced himself the repetition was just coincidence—crazy superstition—until one day in late January 2000, it started to feel uncanny. On dropping his grandmother home, he was avidly greeted by her neighbor, who was joyous about hitting the “pick three” in the lottery. Jared’s gut told him not to enquire what the numbers were, but he couldn’t help himself.
They were 111.
A week later, over a thousand miles away, Jared was the 111th person to be charged in Coral Springs, Florida that year. This was the beginning of what transpired to be a 188-month prison sentence, during which he taught himself how to create art in a cell. His professors were critics and artists speaking from the pages of magazines and books, as well as other prisoners. Focusing on painting and ceramics in his own practice, Jared also parlayed his nascent understanding of the artworld ecosystem into establishing and running a micro art institution that superseded failed art programs within the prison. Over these years he came to embrace the connotations of 111 in numerology: a sign of new beginnings, independence, creativity, and imagination. A signal to step outside your comfort zone and be at one with whatever is coming in your life. Positive or negative, the things you have in mind are going to come to pass.
Malin Gallery | New York is pleased to present 111...and Other Stories, Jared Owens' first solo exhibition in New York, featuring new paintings from five ongoing series alongside sculptural works. Drawing on significant events and phenomena that have been formational during and after his incarceration, the artist constructs works that make visceral the oscillating experiences of confinement, human dignity, beauty, and erasure.
Presented like a game of Tic-Tac-Toe gone awry, the nine new paintings in Series 111 portray hundreds of figures that move in and out of focus amidst exquisite color fields, each with an “x” disruptively planted across the center of the canvas, as if to negate or cancel out what lies beneath. In the Shadow Boxing series, row upon row of figures are suspended in saturated layers of oil or acrylic wash. These are boxed in and seemingly divided by the blocks of color that define boundaries around them. Cadmium orange features prominently, often jarring to the eye, referencing its uses as a warning color within the prison system to demarcate inaccessible areas of the buildings, or used for clothing issued to those in administered segregation.
Stripped of individual character, Owens’ shadow figures are imprinted onto the surface of his paintings using a linoleum cut that is repetitively stamped, as if to bring them to fruition in their tightly knit lines through a bureaucratic procedure. Sometimes their appearance conjures the silhouettes on ancient Greek terracotta funerary krater vessels. Others are more reminiscent of the blackened figures that are the focus of the “Brookes” slave ship diagram, which was widely circulated in print at the end of the eighteenth century to further the British abolitionists’ cause of making the inhumanity of slavery visible. To Owens, the shadow figures in his works similarly symbolize the millions of women and men in the carceral system—as well as in many other marginalized communities today—whose individuality is rendered invisible. The uniqueness of each work however, together with the tangible labor of their production, brings dignity to the figures and an elegiac tenor to the paintings.
Where the Shadow Boxing and 111 paintings play with the seduction and rhythms of psychological structures, other works amplify material architectures of erasure and confinement. Through the series Ellapsium—an invented word which compounds “elapsed” (time) with “asylum”—Owens’ again brings to the fore comparisons between conditions in the U.S. prison system and slavery through correlating the Brookes slave ship schematics with carceral architecture plans, both real and extrapolated. In his Hogfeed series, the compacting of space inherent in architectural elevations is tantamount. The shadow figures that inhabit these picture-planes are subject to the brutality of tectonic forms, manifest through swathes of heavy impasto paint, collaged wire mesh, and burlap sacks. The original use of the sacks—to store and transport pig fodder—along with the artist’s repeated use of the hog insignia branded on the bags give this series its title, as well as providing subtext to several works in the show: Owen’s insinuates a symbiotic relationship between policing and criminalization that feeds the judicial apparatus.
Pictorially, the landscapes that constitute The Go Back series are the most traditional in the show, even if foreign. The title refers to a term and experience that is familiar to anyone who has been incarcerated, wherein the general population are abruptly recalled to their cells from the yard due to an incident, a bad count, fog, or pending inclement weather. Each painting in the series graphically depict large open spaces above the imposing ubiquity of a wall or building, as well as a towering oculus and a mass of figures in motion. Where the sky meets the concrete is the carceral equivalent of the horizon. The skies are freedom, the enclosed yard—and everything in it—nature.
These works, along with many others in the exhibition, contain soil that Owens gradually collected over three years from the weight pile in the prison yard and smuggled home via the postal service. It is cut with sand and suspended in pigment to literally build the surface of the paintings, whereas other materials are collaged to disrupt the continuum of an image. Together, fragments of parachute cloth, bedsheets, and urban detritus, excerpts from his own discarded paintings, as well as the burlap feedbags and steel meshing create the artist’s material lexicon.
In the sculptural works this vocabulary is further expanded, through Owens’ intuitive use of found objects sourced from scrap yards. In The Vault, a four-tier vintage gym box that has is reappropriated—through a play on words as well as form—to reflect on the hurdles and deeply-harbored prejudices underpinning the plantation-to-prison evolution of slavery over 400 years. In Cooped Up a portable chicken crate is immobilized in a slab of concrete. In FBOP (Federal Bauhaus of Prisons), a 10-foot long aluminum CNC remnant is transmuted into an aerial-view model of a labyrinthine prison complex. While the plan is clearly a visual fiction, as with all of Owens’ works, the stories and experiences that brought them into being are surely facts.
Born in 1968 in Queens and currently living in New York, Jared Owens’ recent exhibitions include Chosen Family at Martos Gallery, NY (2021); SHAG Right of Return, Spring Hill Arts Gathering, New Preston, CT (2021); Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (2020-2021) at MoMA PS1, NY, traveling to Abroms-Engle Institute for the Visual Arts, Birmingham AL (2021), National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, OH (2022), and the List Art Center, Brown University, Providence, RI (2022). He has also participated in Rendering Justice, African American Museum of Art in Philadelphia (2021); The O.G. Experience in partnership with HBO and SOZE, Chelsea, NYC (2019); Made in America: Unfree Labor in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Hampshire College, Amhurst, NH (2017); Black Bone: Affrilachian Poets and Visual Artists, Morlan Gallery, Transylvania University, Lexington, KY (2017). Based in South Carolina from 2015-2021, Owens showed at the Mitchell Hill Gallery in Charleston twice, once as part of the Spoleto Arts Festival in 2015 and in 2018. Owens’ first show was in 2012, at Little Berlin Gallery, Philadelphia P.A. with Jesse Krimes, while still incarcerated.
In 2022, Owens was the recipient of an Art for Justice Fellowship; in 2021-22 he was a think tank team member for devising the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Creatives Rebuild New York initiative; in 2021 he was awarded a studio for two-years at Silver Arts in the World Trade Center in New York; in 2020 he received a Right of Return Fellowship from SOZE Agency; in 2019 he earned a Restorative Justice grant from Philadelphia Mural Arts; in 2016-17 he was the recipient of a grant from the Eastern State Penitentiary.