The following are excerpts from Jennifer Rudder's catalogue essay, "Crime and Punishment," for the exhibition of the same name at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (20 March - 6 June, 1999), Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Catalogue available through Art Books Canada
The paintings in this exhibition by Vancouver artist Angela Grossman were inspired by a collection of rap sheets with mug shots that the artist found through a dealer of pritned ephemera. Taken from the files of the B.C. Penitentiary in New Westminster at its closure, the source photographs are of petty criminals from the late 1930s and '40s, some guilty of no more than stealing a letter from the post office.
Amenable to Discipline (mixed media, 1998, 134.6 x 94 cm)
Grossman sees the men as victims of circumstances, society's losers, scapegoats even, and feels a tremendous empathy and generosity towards them.
Rap Sheet, British Columbia Penitentiary
Grossman's artistic process is multi-generational, involving at least two or three and up to ten levels of intervention. The original 2" x 2" mug shots of head and shoulders is painted, rephotographed, re-painted, etc., blown up to as large as 5' x 4' and transferred to canvas or found fabric for more work.
Fraud (mixed media, 1997, 172.7 x 96.5 cm)
In this process, Grossman strips the subject of his specific identity, the prison, and the crime as she works to disguise them and protect their family privacy. Then she takes the image of the convict's face, and gives him a body; completes him. She sometime renders the convicts as naked, adding to their vulnerability.
"Response to the work of Angela Grossman," by Valerie Raoul, Director for Research in Women's Studies and Gender Relations, Professor of French, University of British Columbia (April 5, 2000):
The term [Correction(s): 'Habeus Corupus'] seems particularly appropriate for this series, based on found photos of convicts held in the BC Penitentiary at New Westminster in the 1930s and 40s. The original photos are associated with incarceration, the loss of control of one's body; also with depersonalization, becoming a number, a case, an illustration of a physical criminal type. The identification document accompanying them (included in the catalogue) purports to be objective, scientific, impersonal. Yet it reveals the prejudices of the period regarding class and race, and unconscious, culturally determined moral judgements. The original photos are portraits of head and shoulders, full-face and in profile. The head is seen as a synecdoche for the whole body, its appearance as sufficient explanation of the individual's behavior. An identity is imposed from outside, with no relationship to the person inside that body. The face is observed and recorded, it doesn't appear to look back. These men are framed. They are also discarded, abject, refuse(d), like their photos.
Headbound (mixed media, 1998)
Angela Grossman reframes and rehabilitates their image, conveying a different message, one that critiques the penal system by re-establishing the detained men as individuals, albeit imaginary ones. Using her own fantasy, [she] paradoxically humanizes them by anonymizing them. They are depicted in her portraits as looking out from the frame, with feeling eyes. The addition of color brings them to life, and its collaged juxtaposition with the black-and-white of the original photos reveals what was lacking in those pictures: the men's individual incongruity in a restrictive social frame. In her transformations, they escape from prison by reclothing themselves, incorporating signs of rebellion and nonconformity -- colorful ties or headgear that turn them into clowns. Still isolated, they appear to be attempting to communicate the part of them which does not fit into the stereotype of the male criminal. Some relinquish their masculinity, as they reclaim the parts of their body below the neck and below the belt. The cartoon allusions in the first images become reference to Renaissance cartoons, evoking rebirth and the beginning of creative activity, as the body is freed from the fetters of convention, including clothes.