I recently noticed two majestic landscapes with prisons for hearts. These hearts are hidden. At first sight, you could miss the prisons entirely. They blend into the American West like adaptive lizards.
Look at the real place depicted in Painting of Tule Lake (above) by Jimmy Mirikitani. It was his jail. He was a Japanese American prisoner at Tule Lake in World War II. But the barracks that contained Mirikitani's physical body did not hold in his perspective. In a painting like this, he flies up and out, leaving the barracks behind and diminished in the vast, eternal landscape. The prison may even be on the verge of disappearing entirely. The clouds of shading on the mountain look like bellowing smoke, pumping from the head of a chugging train whose cars are the barracks. So long. Good riddance.
In painting, Mirikitani—an accomplished artist before his imprisonment—could eclipse the prison eclipsing him. Real life didn't turn out that way. He wandered and labored without papers for decades, ending up homeless on the streets of New York peddling his art until he met a filmmaker who crafted the remarkable documentary The Cats of Mirikitani. His story and work resurrected somewhat, he died in 2012.
Courtesy of the artist and Prole Drift
BUDDY BUNTING Juvenile Detention Facility, Antelope Valley, California, 2014, at Prole Drift.
Buddy Bunting has never been jailed but he grew up in the shadow of a Maryland prison. Classmates from high school became inmates and guards, entering that shady place and exiting from view. For several years now, Bunting has portrayed prisons as the hard shells of secrets. He drives out to them all across the West, makes sketches and takes photographs from across the road while trying not to get shooed away, then goes home and concocts portraits that are always panoramas. The prisons sit on huge stretches of flat land, and Bunting clears away anything in the real scene that would obstruct a full view of them.
Juvenile Detention Facility, Antelope Valley, California is enormous and lush: 13 feet long, oil on canvas, a painting's painting. It has the basic appearance and gallery presence of a romantic landscape. Romantics were awed at the power of nature over humanity; Mirikitani found it reassuring.
The balance has shifted in Bunting's large oil. The human presence is very big, but completely hidden. In earlier portraits of the prisons, Bunting didn't use color, and there was nothing in a scene except for the long stretch of prison—no sky, no ground. Over the years, the surrounding environment has bled forth into view, and now, the transition is complete: Prison and environment have become one. Slabs of concrete look naturally occurring, like rock walls carved smooth by the elements. The prison belongs. How can it be dislodged now?