July 17, 2019 | 92° F

Zimmerli exhibits former inmate’s mural


Courtesy of Jesse Krimes | Jesse Krimes, a convicted “drug kingpin,” created murals using bedsheets, newspaper, hair gel, colored pencils and a plastic spoon hand-press during his incarceration.

Convicted for nearly six years for being a drug kingpin, Jesse Krimes lived behind federal penitentiary walls. Despite the austere concrete walls and the monotony of prison life, he managed to create a life beyond his federal detention number.

Krimes bartered with a fellow inmate working in the laundry room for bed sheets. Using the sheets as a canvas, he transferred pictures from The New York Times using hair gel, colored pencils and a plastic spoon hand press. He smuggled each bed sheet out through the post and did not see his artwork until he was released from prison.

The final product became a behemoth 39-panel mural. Krimes dubbed it “Apokaluptein:16389067,” referencing the Greek origin of the word “apocalypse,” and his Federal Bureau of Prisons identification number. 

The mural is now hanging in the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum on the College Avenue campus as part of a larger conference, “Marking Time: Prison Arts and Activism.” 

The conference, organized and hosted by the Institute for Research on Women, is a two-day long event from Oct. 8 to Oct. 10 and spread across eight locations in New Brunswick.

“Apokaluptein” and the conference, as a whole, will focus on the prison system culture as well as on criticism of contemporary mass incarceration. The conference will feature a keynote speaker, Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison.”

Artists that will stand alongside Krimes include Gregory Sale, Mark Strandquist, Maria Gaspar and Ron Levine.

Nicole Fleetwood, associate professor in the University’s Department of American Studies, said society needs to rethink how it thinks about crime and punishment. 

“Jesse’s work is really a window into that,” she said.

Kimiko Matsumura, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art History, said Krimes’s mural is a modern-day “Divine Comedy,” reminiscent of great artists Gustave Dorè and Sandro Botticelli. 

“Apokaluptein” features three tiers: a heaven, an earth and a hell. Politicians are depicted as archangels, celebrities as angels and criminals as demons.

“[‘Apokaluptein’] has long literary philosophical traditions, touching on religious ideas related to psychology, reliquaries and the mural constitution of Renaissance painting,” she said.

Krimes also focuses on the themes of celebrity idolization, dehumanization, objectification and self-identification. The ideas of celebrity idolization and self-identification have strong ties to his turbulent past as a child and young adult.

Krimes’s mother had him when she was 16 years old and his biological father abandoned him. The man who raised him committed suicide when Krimes was 13. 

Krimes turned to popular male celebrities for inspiration, especially ones that enticed him with flashy and expensive commodities.

Matsumura said Krimes aspired to have a lifestyle heavily based on objects before his desire ultimately landed him in prison. Meditating on the source of his desire led him to produce his strikingly insightful masterpiece.

Donna Gustafson, a curator at the Zimmerli Art Museum, said commodity culture is a theme that is partitioned to the confines of Krimes’s “Divine Comedy” hell.

Krimes saturates hell with advertising to play on the idea that people are constantly in a cycle of purchasing and being dissatisfied with what they have, driving the unhappiness and greed that compels people to go out and buy even more.

“There are hundreds of images, including ads for exhibitions at [the Museum of Modern Art and] new clothes. [There are pictures of] Hurricane Sandy, starving children, luxury, and poverty,” she said. “It’s the full gamut of what life is like for many, many people.”

The advertising whirlwind in hell includes recognizable faces. From Andy Warhol to Paul Cézanne, Krimes excludes little pop culture references.

The Zimmerli Arts Museum is the first museum to feature “Apokaluptein,” and Gustafson hopes students will take the time to come out and see a unique piece of art that speaks hauntingly of today’s time.

It is “absolutely wonderful,” Gustafson said, and a view as to how someone forcibly removed from the outside world managed to perceive events on a day-to-day basis anyhow.

What images Krimes transferred onto the bed sheets — from Hurricane Sandy to the re-election of President Barack Obama — is recognizable, yet the sheets have a sense of muffled understanding of what actually happened.

“By being in prison and being unable to experience the world directly because it is shut off, he is able to put the world on these sheets that were in contact with the prison’s body,” she said.

Katie Park

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