Physical confinement can turn a man loose on himself. Things around him don't change, so his imagination may set off on its own for variety. In Massachusetts state prisons, a part of a convict's day is marked off as free time -- the pool room and TV parlor are opened, and a guard watches as the prisoners relax. Some prisoners, however, go off in these free moments to paint in prison studios.
Each year, Phillip Brooks House exhibits and sells some of this artwork at Harvard. Receipts are either returned to the prisoners or put in a trust fund until they are released.
Many of the artists in this show are killers -- all but two of the prisons represented are maximum security institutions -- and what is most startling about this exhibit is the number of evenly-wrought, painfully conventional paintings which these men produced. The prison doesn't provide models or try, through instruction, to direct the content of these paintings; the prisoners are left to their own imaginations, and one somehow expects the social outlaw, the man who just couldn't keep down the urge to throw a brick through a window, to be a little less-contained in front of the easel. One expects a convict-artist to have a more fearful vision than many of the spleenless seascapes and portraits in this show reveal.
The prisoners are most successful when they get a little gutsy, when they stop trying to prove themselves artists by showing-off a studio technique. The grotesquely erotic symbolism of Willie Rogers' paintings, and the harrowing eyes of a strong man afraid in Robert Urquart's "Self Portrait" are the best art in the show because they clearly are made by confined men.