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Malin Gallery is pleased to present Dark Reflections - an exhibition of new paintings by the Brooklyn-based artist Russell Craig. The show consists of twelve large scale paintings rendered on fragments of leather handbags that the artist has sewn together, along with three self-portraits on wood panel. Dark Reflections is the artist’s first show with the gallery.
The Dark Reflections works employ an eclectic mixture of visual references rooted in art historical and pop culture genres, including rap music, comics and science fiction, yet the paintings all feature a latent autobiographical quality with implicit narratives built around Craig’s life experiences. Craig employs visual idioms rooted in cinema and mass advertising to create dynamic narratives characterized by alternating moods of frenetic action and still contemplation. Although the overt subject matter varies, the Dark Reflections works are uniformly characterized by allegorical allusions to Craig’s experiences spending twelve years incarcerated in the juvenile and the adult criminal justice systems. While many of the works are intensely personal, they also wield implicit but vigorous critique regarding the system of mass incarceration in America.
The black bags that Craig used to create his leather-backed paintings were all acquired from an inmate acquaintance who devoted himself to crafting handmade handbags while in prison. Subsequent to his release, Craig acquired a large number of the bags in an effort to support his friend. Although the intention was to use them as art materials, Craig experimented with the bags for several years before deciding how to incorporate them into his artwork. In the Dark Reflections works, Craig has deconstructed the bags and then hand sewn the fragments together to create supports for his paintings. He draws an analogy between material and subject matter by defining the black leather surfaces as representative of Black skin (and thus the Black body). Craig considers his interventions with the material - cutting, flattening, reconstituting - as evocative of the violence inflicted on Black bodies throughout American history in various epochs: slavery, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights era and mass incarceration. He incorporates the hardware from the bags, including buckles, zippers and fasteners, into the works, with the forms serving as powerful signifiers of restriction or confinement.
The subject matter in the Dark Reflections paintings all derives on some level from Craig’s personal experiences living in foster care and on the street and his subsequent incarceration. However, Craig frequently contextualizes those personal experience within the broad sweep of American history, with particular focus on continuities between slavery and the current paradigm of mass incarceration in the U.S. The title Dark Reflections refers to Craig’s perceptions regarding the persistent legacy of slavery and the ongoing recapitulations slavery-related practices and beliefs in contemporary society and its institutions.
The material qualities of the handbag fragments are employed most directly in Where do you want your body sent? (2022), which is the only completely non-figurative work in the show. The title is a reiteration of the first question typically asked of inmates during the intake process. The query is heavily laden with meaning beyond its practical dimension. Upon entry into a carceral institution, it conveys the message that the inmate should not necessarily presume that he or she will survive their incarceration, while emphasizing that the individual has been institutionally-designated as disposable. The curving forms of the leather fragments along with the incorporation of zippers and buckles evoke body bags - vessels that serve as the only manner in which many individuals will ever leave prison.
In other Dark Reflections works, Craig manages to imbue foreboding subjects with a bracing sense of humor. The title of RDAP (2022) refers to a behavioral modification program used widely throughout the federal prison system. Inmates enrolled in RDAP are housed in separate residential facilities and compliance with RDAP requires inmates to adhere to seemingly arbitrary behavioral mandates. In Craig’s painting, he alludes to an RDAP practice wherein guards can use a hand gesture in pretending to “spray” inmates, who are then required to lay prostrate on the floor and pretend that they are dying. Craig illustrates the practice employing imagery from commercials for domestic insecticide, versions of which have aired since the 1960s.
Craig similarly infuses a dark subject with seemingly incongruous humor in his four part work My Court Proceeding (2022), in which he depicts the moment he was sentenced to federal prison for eight years. In separate panels, Craig portrays the district attorney, the presiding judge, the public defender and the defendant, (himself) all as Furbies. Incorporated into their visages are playing card elements such as clubs, diamonds and hearts. These elements reference both the cultural significance of playing cards in prison and Craig’s sense that the participants were essentially “playing a game” with his life.
Craig employs his singular perspective as an artist to address powerful themes such as institutional racism and state violence. By encapsulating these concepts within compelling visual elements, Craig conveys critical narratives regarding often concealed or unacknowledged aspects of American history and contemporary society. Though his imagery is frequently appealing and occasionally humorous, Craig’s work employs an array of potent themes: the institutional use of psychological techniques for behavioral control; minstrelsy; the concept of mass incarceration as the “new Jim Crow” or a “modern day plantation system;” and the characterization of individuals impacted by the criminal justice system as inherently “disposable.”
Russell Craig: Dark Reflections is on view at 515 West 29th St. in New York through June 4.