Medium and Support:
Ilfochrome photograph, hardwood housing treated with acrylic paint and oil sticks
Gift of Nancy Wyllie
Seeing Andres Serrano’s 1992 exhibition of the The Morgue was a profound experience for Nancy Wyllie and inspired her to make photographs that “explore themes of the forgotten and the disenfranchised with an emphasis on the underbelly of the American experience.” Sometime afterward she had a unique opportunity to visit the then-closed 1829 Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, a space that operated for over 140 years as the world’s first penitentiary. With her Nikon F4 camera and hardhat, Wyllie photographed the cells, chapel and common areas in ruin for an entire day. Years later during an artistic breakthrough, she began to pull architectural details out of the Eastern State Penitentiary photographs - and construct hardwood housings with actual thresholds and arched doorways to mimic the barrel vaults in each jail cell.
Wyllie describes these pieces as a “portal through which the viewer would pass”. The architectural housings she built for each large-scale photo increased the illusion of depth and created a sense of actual place. Wyllie painted and distressed the wood surface with acrylic paint, oil stick and liquid copper solutions to achieve the verdigris surfaces found throughout the crumbling prison. Observatory was the first work in this series to achieve such perspective, by directly uniting the elements of architecture and photography. In 2009 when the work was presented at Hunt-Cavanaugh Gallery, Providence College, members of the Department of Corrections in Rhode Island attended her exhibit and artist talk. This encounter eventually led to a longer-term art teaching opportunity for degree candidates in the prison, an experience that was eventually captured in Wyllie’s 2011 documentary film Exit Strategy: Education Behind Bars. The film has screened at conferences such as Arts in Prison: Sharing Global and Local Practices at Brown University 2011 and at Violence Transformed at the Massachusetts State House in Boston 2014.
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