Being Human in an Inhumane Time

Being Human in an Inhumane Time

Written by Quinn Venable

THINKING OF A PLACE is a virtual exhibition curated by Jesse Krimesshowcasing six artists who use their work to discuss, protest, and respond to mass incarceration within the United States. Krimes’s impactful curatorial statement places these contemporary artists within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, informing viewers about how our current system specifically oppresses people of colour through police brutality, imprisonment, over-supervision, and other legal systems.   
The exhibition exists within the non-profit online art space, Art at a Time Like This, created by independent curators Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen back in March 2020. The platform encourages artists to virtually share work that responds to current events taking place during COVID-19, allowing those involved to express their emotions, opinions, and outrage through art. 
Within THINKING OF A PLACE lies a collection of silicone sculptures by Courtney Jane Cone that reflects on the four years she spent imprisoned at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Her pieces depict how she saw her body after becoming state property, “a fleshy object full of hiding holes, routinely checked and inspected” (Cone 2020). Her works combine humour and horror while exploring the dehumanizing qualities of being a woman within the American prison system.  

Her successful use of subject matter, medium and experience is based within a feminist practice that helps viewers understand and connect with Cone’s trauma. Her sculptures use silicone, pigment, foam, pantyhose and found materials to produce the appearance of fleshy, organic forms covered in tears and several large holes. The wet texture of the sculptures creates the illusion of raw meat that has begun to decay. Although the works cannot be directly translated to human anatomy, they have enough familiarity to cause feelings of uneasiness, disgust and empathy. Their colours range between translucent white, mucus yellow, gray pink and bruised black as each piece is displayed on various forms of medical equipment - inflicting a harsh and sterile environment.  

Cone’s emphasis on dehumanization and the grotesque is in parallel with the work of renowned artist Louise Bourgeois, who began incorporating these qualities into her practice during the 1960s. Prior to this period, Bourgeois had gained a strong following with her large minimalistic wood sculptures (Speaks 89). She turned to plaster from 1960-1963 to explore her experience as a mother, artist, and inhabitant of the female body. The works she created during this period were called lumpy and disturbing by public audiences, while many critics began to question her talent, prior success and artistic vision (Speaks 89).

Both artists toy with their viewers by creating something we recognize but cannot situate within time and space. The presence of “exposed meaty flesh” forces us to confront our vulnerability, which in turn builds uneasiness and discomfort. It is also important to note that while Bourgeois and Cone use their work to express the nude female form, they disrupt its sexualization through disgust. Cone’s work displays her body turned inside out, with all its holes and crevices exposed. Her helplessness is difficult to realize, for it is too real and transferable to the viewer. Even though most of us cannot relate to being imprisoned we can connect with the pain and perseverance that comes with being human.   

The self-reflection caused by Cone’s work packs an extra punch during COVID-19, a time when the body is a burden to keep sanitized and isolated. While growing case numbers build on our anxiety, powerlessness, and physical disassociation, Cone’s sculptures feel like looking in a mirror. Bearing her experience as a prisoner so openly encourages others to bear their own scars. Although her sculptures are victims, they remain before us, initiating a response. They are also a reminder that while humanity is delicateit also has grit.  

The importance of virtual spaces such as Art at a Time Like This has never been greater. The platform allows artists to share experiences, ideas, and pain, creating connection in a time where so many feel alone. Learning how to live long-term with COVID-19 has and will continue to be a challenge for everyone affected. We must keep sharing, creating and being honest with each other if we hope to rise above the challenges ahead.   

Quinn Venable is a first-year master's student at York University studying art history and curatorial studies. Her interests include abstract expressionism, surrealism and colour field painting in relation to spirituality and religion. 

Works Cited

Cone, Courtney. “Courtney Jane Cone.” Art At A Time Like This, 2020.

Speaks, Elyse. “'We Bring Our Lares With Us': Bodies and Domiciles in the Sculpture of Louise Bourgeois.” Art Journal, vol. 68, no. 3, 2009, pp. 88–103., doi:10.1080/00043249.2009.10791354.