In the documentary Krimes, artist Jesse Krimes espouses a provocative theory: many of the U.S.’s greatest artists are unknown, and not simply because curators and dealers haven’t taken the time to find them. “One in three people has a criminal record, so that is a clear signal to me that there is a whole pool of wasted talent, not just in the prison system, but also with the people who come home,” he says. According to Krimes, some of today’s finest painters and sculptors are still incarcerated. We just haven’t heard about them yet.
Krimes would know a thing or two about this. Last summer, he became one of the breakout stars of Nicole Fleetwood’s MoMA PS1 exhibition “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” where he was one of many formerly incarcerated artists with art on view. “Marking Time” was an exhibition quite unlike many others before it, and it came as part of a relatively new emphasis being placed on the U.S. prison system within the art world. Back in 2017, collector Agnes Gund sold a $160 million Roy Lichtenstein painting to launch Art for Justice, an organization dedicated toward funding projects about the carceral system; earlier this year, the memoirs of late artist Winfred Rembert, who was imprisoned for seven years, were put out by Bloomsbury, a mainstream publishing house. (Rembert is currently the subject of a career retrospective at the New York–based gallery Fort Gansevoort.)
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A tide is turning, but Krimes thinks there’s a lot more work to be done. Speaking of art made by formerly incarcerated artists like himself, he says in the film, “It’s work that needs to be in MoMA, it’s work that needs to be in the Whitney, and it’s work that no one knows about.”
Krimes marks one attempt to ensure that this statement starts to seem like a relic of a bygone mentality. Directed with compassion by Alysa Nahmias (who earlier this year also released a documentary about László Moholy-Nagy), this film offers an eye-opening look at how one artist is seeking to lift the veil on a part of American society that has been made largely invisible to the public. In the process, Nahmias considers how art can be a tool for resistance within the exploitative prison system of the U.S. One comment from Krimes, who went to art school prior to his incarceration, acts as a thesis for the film: “Art is what I know, so it was what I was making to survive.”
In “Marking Time,” Fleetwood often did not specify why the artists she included were imprisoned, in an attempt, she said, to avoid “categories of guilt and innocence.” Nahmias’s film goes in a different direction, examining his case extensively. Early on, we learn that Krimes was initially given a 70-month sentence for selling cocaine. (Krimes claims that the amount of cocaine he arrested for was deliberately overstated by authorities, which he describes as “typical practice” within the federal system.) He wound up serving five years.
Behind bars, Krimes witnessed how racism is systemic in U.S. prisons—he was one of the few white faces among a sea of Black and Brown ones. Even before he got there, he thought that his sentence was light when compared to others. “It seemed to me that race was the main driving factor in that decision,” he tells Nahmias. “Honestly, it made me angry.”
To “disconnect” amid a racially segregated and often tense environment, Krimes turned to art. He began drawing the heads of prisoners onto saintly figures in the mold of those rendered centuries ago by Fra Angelico and the like, effectively complicating who really counts as being innocent. “We’re all some type of offender,” Krimes explains.
Later on, Krimes engaged in the project that has since come to be his best-known work: Apokaluptein:16389067 (2010–13), which he produced clandestinely, to avoid the piece being confiscated. At PS1, the work filled an entire wall, though Krimes worked on it piecemeal—and had never seen it in full until he got out of prison. In it, figures culled from Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish appear to fly above an urban landscape filled with images appropriated from notices for Christie’s sales, fashion ads, and more. To make them, Krimes transferred the images from publications using hand sanitizer and bedsheets—the materials he had on hand. He mailed out the work in sections, and just barely managed to finish it before the end of the sentence.
Within prison, Krimes found unexpected community among other artists. “What are the odds of me bumping into another conceptual artist in prison?” Jared Owens recalls. Owens, Krimes, and others formed a support structure and fostered each other’s practices.
Throughout Krimes, Nahmias finds clever ways of humanizing her subject. She portrays Krimes as a person with a tough exterior and a rich mind—the kind of person who is just as likely to be spotted poring over the latest issue of Artforum as he is to be found bench-pressing in a gym. In one of the documentary’s best scenes, we see Krimes sparring with Owens about the merits of art-historical giants. With a kind of machismo, Krimes derisively labels Matisse “another Renoir.” Owens, shocked, calls that “sacrilege.”
While Krimes now lives in Philadelphia and leads an art practice that recently earned him a $50,000 United States Artist Fellowship, he also continues to face the effects of the carceral system, as this film makes clear. He may have resumed contact with his son, but the child “felt like someone else’s kid,” he recalls. There’s also the potential to head back to prison for the smallest offenses, and the difficulty of making a living.
Nahmias dwells not on the challenges Krimes has faced, but on his resilience. To elucidate the importance of remaining strong, she enlists artist Russell Craig, a fellow inmate when Krimes was incarcerated and an artist in his own right. Speaking of the carceral system, Craig says, “It’s a machine. It’s a dark machine, too. That’s why art became important—it was like an escape.”
MTV Films recently acquired Krimes, which debuted earlier this month at the DOC NYC festival. It plays digitally on the festival’s site through Sunday.