Our modern, enlightened penal system often views basic human needs like contact, communication and individuality as threats to institution’s efficiency and overall security. Consequently, they are prohibited. Artist Kim Martinez finds this systemic philosophy troubling and problematic.
Martinez is no stranger to the workings of the Utah penal system. Having first involved herself on a volunteer basis teaching art classes to inmates, she since has had several official appointments. She sat on the Citizens Advisory Council, as well as the Utah Correctional Industries Council—the board that oversees the different kinds of products and services that inmates create—for nearly six years. One of the goals for the latter commission is to create the opportunity for inmate skill development. “For me, I truly believe in rehabilitation rather than punishment,” begins Martinez. “So as a board member that was one of my focuses: How can we get these folks better equipped to be in the general population?”
While serving officially she also continued the volunteer effort under the umbrella of Art Access, a nonprofit agency that takes art to sections of the community where it’s typically inaccessible. Now a faculty member at the University of Utah, she also sits on the board of that agency and has spearheaded several more projects.
“The first time I went in there I was kind of amazed. You know, realistically, it’s really a racial kind of thing. It was the only place in Salt Lake that I saw an overrepresentation of people of color,” Martinez says: “Being Latina myself, it was a place where I thought I could relate and be of service. It was just a natural place for me to go and share my art, because that is what I have to offer the world.”
As a direct result of her time spent inside as an outsider, Martinez created a series of paintings now being shown at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts as Warped Spaces.
“The thing about the paintings you see in this show, while they are of a specific place, they aren’t of a specific place,” Martinez says. “Meaning, I tend to work more like the Chinese do. When they paint a waterfall for instance, they don’t look at the waterfall and paint it, like we typically see in Western painting. They go and spend two months with the waterfall and they get to know the waterfall. Then they return to their studio and paint it.”
What’s remarkable is that at first glance the paintings don’t reflect the common images conjured when prisons come to mind—dark, dingy and centered around inhumane punishments. The color spectrum alone defies any stereotypical association. Through those same color choices, the clinical treatment of the setting and the haunting lack of humans within her work gives the viewer the same sense of authoritarian horror that comes with the idea of incarceration.
Martinez took this more sterile route because that is how we penalize in our modern society. Spanish painter Francisco de Goya got down and dirty when doing his prison paintings around the turn of the 19th century, but a sense of detachment accomplished through objectification only seems appropriate for current times.
“It’s interesting because when you walk into the prisons you don’t see anyone,” Martinez says. “You can hear them and you can smell them but they’re out of sight. For me that was one of the most eerie things—the loss of person, the loss of individuality. The system is set up to go more after the spirit of individuals, so it’s not so personal.”
This attack of the individual spirit also spawned Martinez’s choice to produce the pieces as triptychs, ultimately alluding to medieval altarpieces. The central canvas within each painting depicts a particular, intellectually recreated room that has some basis in prison reality. In “Incarceration/Be Nice Chair,” sits a chair heavily adorned with physical restraints, centered in a room that seems barely large enough to hold it. In “Incarceration/Promenade” the room is a central two-story courtyard, lined with Plexiglass fronted cells, where a large circling path has been worn into the cement ground.
Yet it is the play of these anchoring pieces against the two side panels that create a complex theater for discussion. Both panels have broad-lined paintings, in near instruction manual style, of clothing particular to each architectural space. Thus, jumpsuits with tie-downs, plastic facemasks with leather tethers or the cotton-colored, quilted suits that bookend “Incarceration/Padded Surfaces” replace the absent individual.
Those inmates have long since become another number in the system, defined only by the color of their jumpsuit and the pod or cellblock that they live in. The entire system is designed to attack the sense of identity for the individual. “I wanted to show all that, because for me it’s almost more detrimental in many ways than putting somebody up to a wall and slapping them with a stick. The result can be more everlasting than the physical abuse, which in the long run does nothing for the betterment of society.”