Art behind bars: A group exhibit at the decommissioned Nevada State Prison explores themes of incarceration

It’s searingly hot on the day Frances Melhop takes me into a tiny prison cell. We’re at the decommissioned Nevada State Prison in Carson City, and the concrete walls and floors have made the heat miserable inside.  

The cell, originally part of maximum-security housing, is maybe eight feet square and was meant to contain two grown men, with bunk beds and a toilet. In this eerie space, guests in the coming months can experience poetry and artwork inspired by the experience of incarceration, as part of Far Beyond the Walls, the newest exhibition curated by Melhop and presented as a collaboration between Melhop Gallery ˚7077 and the Nevada State Prison Preservation Society. 

The recently decommissioned Nevada State Prison in Carson City is the venue for the group exhibition Far Beyond the Walls. Photo/Frances Melhop

The exhibition is the brainchild of Melhop, who left her brick-and-mortar version of ˚7077 gallery behind in 2022 in favor of a nomadic, pop-up gallery model that showcases artists’ work in relevant settings, to more deeply immersed audiences. 

Melhop first encountered the decommissioned Nevada State Prison in 2020, when she joined her friend Lisa Jayne, a historian, to provide photography for a project. “I hadn’t gone nomadic at that point, but I knew this would be a really great space to do some relevant art projects,” Melhop recalled. 

She filed it away in the back of her mind, and the idea re-emerged this year when it was time to plan an exhibition for one of the artists she represents, Giampiero Assumma.  

“He is a photographer from Naples, now based in Moscow, and he spent about 10 years taking photographs of people in secured criminal psychiatric facilities in Italy,” she said, explaining how his work cautiously and respectfully records the spaces, inmates and emotions inhabiting these facilities. “Once I went nomadic and connected the dots, I thought putting his work in here would be so heart-rending and powerful.” 

A second realization followed shortly after: Another artist Melhop represents, Jennifer Garza-Cuen, is a photographer whose work has explored the aesthetic of criminalization, documenting archives such as ruined, unidentifiable mugshots, press photos and processing paperwork. Soon, Melhop had the makings of a group exhibition with unlimited potential. 

Melhop approached the Nevada State Prison Preservation Society, the nonprofit organization established to preserve and develop the prison as an educational and cultural site, about the idea for the exhibit, and she was met with enthusiasm from the start.  

“They’ve been so positive and extremely open to the idea of putting artwork in these spaces,” she said, explaining that the society members even agreed to arrange for electricity throughout the prison during the run of the show. “Each time I find another artist, I ask for another space, and they’ve been brilliant.” 

An image from the Imprints & Abstractions series, courtesy of artist Jennifer Garza-Cuen.

The result is Far Beyond the Walls, an immersive exhibition featuring 22 artists—showcasing photography, painting, fabric art, and poetry—in seven solo exhibitions and two group shows, located throughout the prison in cell housing, the infirmary, the culinary space, the barbering cell and the holding cell. The goal, says the show’s website, is “to move public awareness towards an understanding of the issues surrounding incarceration in the U.S., both historically and currently.” 

In addition to works by Assumma and Garza-Cuen, the show also will feature a series of paintings called P2P: Prisoners to Paper Dolls by Glynn Cartledge, an artist who spent 25 years working as a criminal defense lawyer at this very prison, who is currently a Nevada Arts Council fellow. 

“I was really interested in the fact that you have no identity when you’re in there, apart from a number,” Melhop said of the series. “Her concern is that people come out of prison, and they’re treated like two-dimensional characters—paper dolls, essentially. You have a stigma, and there are just so many obstacles when you get out. You’re seen as this one thing, this really flat entity, not as someone with potential and skills and thought processes.” 

Images from the “P2P: Prisoner to Paper Dolls” series by Glynn Cartledge, an artist who used to work as a criminal lawyer.

Accompanying Cartledge’s work is a soundscape created by Gia Dreyer, a queer, nonbinary composer from New Jersey whose work focuses on the experiences of exclusion and marginalization. 

Also among the visual artists is Kevin Barron, a formerly incarcerated artist out of the United Kingdom who will be showcasing works of psychedelic art, specifically in the template of LSD blotter art. Lisa Jarrett, who makes art within the African diaspora, specifically surrounding the cultural aspects of Black hair, was inspired by the prison’s barber chair to produce a barber’s cape with stitching that portrays an elaborate escape plan, as in the Mouse Trap board game. A video exhibition by German filmmaker Harun Farocki will be shown, and the prison’s cafeteria will present work by artists who are inmates at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City and the Lovelock Correctional Center. Those works will be available for sale; proceeds will be disbursed to the artists’ commissary accounts, enabling them to purchase art supplies or other desired items. 

“Viracocha,” by Kevin Barron, from the United Kingdom, is based on LSD blotter art, as is much of his work.

Finally, Nevada poet laureate Shaun Griffin has curated a collection of poetry to be featured in the show. Griffin, who has been teaching poetry workshops to inmates over the last 30 years, has brought work from formerly incarcerated poets to contribute to the show. Their writings have been stamped into pieces torn from cardboard boxes.  

“I wanted to use cardboard boxes,” Melhop explained, “because everything inside a prison becomes art material. It all gets traded. I wanted it to be something that would be used on the inside.” The punched-out lettering on the pieces, when hung in front of prison bars, will enable light to show through the words. 

“Several of the guys have said that Shaun and poetry have literally saved their lives, because it was another way of communicating,” Melhop said. “I think there’s so much violence inside the prison, and you can’t talk; you can’t say anything. You need other outlets to express what’s going on, and I think he provided that—an incredible outlet to let it go, to create these new worlds.” 

Ultimately, the immersive nature of Far Beyond the Walls is not a commentary on our justice system, but rather about the humanity within it, as indicated by its title.  

“It’s about the fact that doing a prison sentence carries on long after you’re released,” Melhop said. “It doesn’t end. The troubles and difficulties faced by people who have completed their time, paid their dues … they’re in a terrible situation. So, it’s about way more than just being inside the walls.” 

Far Beyond the Walls will be on display through Monday, Sept. 30, and is available to view by appointment. Melhop is asking viewers to book through her website, www.melhopgallery.com, and she will meet with visitors to provide a tour of the exhibit. The 2 1/2 hour tour costs $25.  

This article was produced by Double Scoop, Nevada’s source for visual arts news. Learn more at doublescoop.art.