Sentence - a work in progress
Started 2009, end date unknown
The project documented here is an ongoing collaboration between artist Alan O'Cain and a US-based British former-banker convicted of securities fraud and now serving a sixteen-year prison sentence in a US jail. Because the prisoner lacks US citizenship, he is forbidden from serving the sentence in a low-security establishment. The prisoner, a university graduate, family man, former art collector now shares a cell with a convicted murderer and has no opportunity for parole before serving a minimum of fourteen years.
Alan has vowed to create a painting for every year his subject remains incarcerated. Each four-foot square work is inspired by the emotional and intellectual content of letters Alan has received and is based on a single photograph (of the subject with arm around his wife) taken by a mutual friend whilst the subject was under house arrest pending trial. Alan says about these works: "I have never met this man, but am drawn to the tragic power of his situation and the universal risks we all face attempting to fulfil dreams whilst steering a pathway between the misted boundaries of right and wrong. The works are intended to be neutral in terms of political or moral opinion: they are distillations of the effect of imprisonment on an individual and his/her relationship with family and the outside world. They are an attempt to turn heartfelt written words into images. I invite viewers to look upon the figures and the elements in these paintings and reach their own conclusions."
A number of individuals responsible for similar accounting frauds in the US have escaped custodial sentences.
Manchester Cathedral Exhibition
From 7 March - 23 April 2017 Alan will display works representing the first eight years of the subject's sentence. The exhibition will be of a work-in-progress: the conclusion of the project is an unknown. This will accurately reflect the subject's position of extreme uncertainty. Alongside the paintings, short extracts from the subject's letters will be displayed.
Alan says about Sentence # 1: "This work incorporates a zip donated by the subject’s friend Paul (from a much-loved old gardening coat). The zip is painted yellow, mirroring the many yellow lines the subject’s wife has to stand behind to be processed in and out of the prison during visiting. The zip separates and joins. It is clogged with paint so can never be undone, but it is a fragile link between two physically separate halves of the painting. It also deliberately pays homage to the paintings of American artist Barnett Newman. The section of gold frame, reading left to right, represents the comfortable lifestyle forever lost and left behind."
Alan says about Sentence # 2: "Here the dualism of mind and body is addressed and the nature of secrecy. I have created a collaged and overpainted surface of my own credit card bills and incised into the surface with a screwdriver, creating outlines of the figures by digging back to the black underpainting. The methodology is a physical expression of the anguish of keeping the uncomfortable hidden."
The subject says about Sentence # 3:" This painting speaks to everything I feel and at an aesthetic level, everything I have, in my limited way, come to appreciate in art. The painting is a universe – my universe, or rather the universe that my wife and I populate. At the moment that universe is empty, it’s a blank. But yet it has vague definition, the consequence of an accumulated memory. But for the moment we have wiped that clean. The painting with its Twombly-esque chalk washed texture suggests that something that was there has been erased, but that a new experience will be recorded – but not yet . . . Breathtaking and deeply moving. I cannot say more other than express my profound feelings and appreciation for [this] representation of where we are in our universe. Astonishing – a painting 'To Live For'."
Extract from Alan's letter to the subject about Sentence #4: "6.09 pm, 3 July, 2015. After a marathon session throughout a hot afternoon of art as physical exercise I have twisted, screwed and amalgamated Sentence #4 into existence. The work is complete. For this panel the male figure (you) is shifted far left and the female figure (your wife) is shifted far right. They have transposed positions and the physics of how the man can have his arm around the woman is lost in an alternative dimension, but they are still united. Through the horizontal gap between the boards two lengths of yellow electric cable intertwine, their ends raw, frayed and connected to nothing. Powerless. Wrapped around the figures in a rough crude cross are sundered black bin bags, agonizingly twisted and stretched to breaking point: useless for the task of clearing rubbish; hopeless for the carting away of nonsense. One section of bag splays across the man’s mouth: suffocating, cloying, gagging breath, gagging words. Another section stretches over the woman’s forehead, pressurizing, heating, stressing. But holding the waist of the man, three finger ends, still screwed immovably in place, clinging on, three points of connection stronger than the mute electric cable, stronger than the splitting universe. Love and hope bridging the aching gap."
Alan says about Sentence # 5: "Here are two figures glowing in pitch blackness. They are represented entirely by painted outline and areas of highlighting. They are in darkness but we see no shadows in the figures. The white outlines are colour-washed in ultramarine, cadmium orange (Francis Bacon’s favourite colour) and crimson, referencing the colours in Sentence #4. This is an individual work, but can also be regarded as the centre of a triptych formed by #4, #5 and #6. What I have come to think of as the “black triptych” (#1, #2 and #3 being the “white triptych”). The figures were painted together and then I sawed out the centre section of the male figure and transposed it to the right. So, the core of the man, his “heart and soul”, looks in from the side, separated, but waiting in the wings. Meanwhile the rest of the male figure converges with the female: they have become one. Their hold on each other is all-consuming and unbreakable. The same male hand and arm is represented in Sentence #6."
Alan says about Sentence # 6: "In this painting words from one of the prisoner's letters are scrawled in blunt HB pencil across the vertical black lines 'I am determined to claw some of that time back'. This spontaneous and unplanned addition of text pays homage to Cy Twombly. The idea of isolating the hand and arm as a motif occurred to me several years before painting the work. In the original photograph there is a firmness and tension in the fingers and arm: a mixture of masculine strength and portended anxiety. This tension matches the oppressive sense created by the vertical bars and the onomatopoeia of the word “claw”. The streaks of red (scraped on using the edge of a piece of card – I did not want this to be too literal) could be blood. The downward drag of red encapsulates a sense of falling yet clinging. Composition for me is all about contrasts and balance. Here the shapes and positions of the two wooden frames balance each other, whilst the contrast in the width and profile of the woods separates yet harmonises the elements. The right hand frame is peppered with galvanised clout nails. These could be bullet holes, or just as easily an astronomical constellation. Compositionally they match the sense of falling created by the smudge of red and downward point of the fingers; texturally; they are spots of ultra-matt, lifeless grey. The vertical bars were created using the edges of the panels of #5 as a template, so, as with other panels, one work has interacted physically with another during its creation, like the folds of space-time."
Alan says about Sentence # 7 (and Sentence # 8 below): "Panels #7 and #8 represent the first two works of a “red triptych”. The sawn-off segment of #7 has been used as a precisely measured and angled backing “filler” board for the exploded panels in #8. The filler board, although invisible, contains the missing section of painting. In these two works the figures are becoming bolder and more defined. They span the halfway point of the sentence. They show a man and woman set to emerge from darkness. The male figure in #7 appears emaciated and haunted, yet the colours are bright and the brushstrokes free and lively. In #8 the figures are rotated: flying, or falling? The male figure supports the female figure in their flight: his grasp has become strong. The sense of flight is enhanced by the suggestion of wings behind the female. The combining and overlapping of panels is a direct allusion to the multi-canvas work of Ellsworth Kelly. With the figures there is a (non-intentional, but pleasing) sense of Chagall. The colour scheme is undoubtedly influenced by a thought of stained glass windows. Mainly here however, I’m exploring a technique I’ve been developing for many years: overlapping and integrated abstract colour fields “invaded” (for want of a better word) by crude and graphical narrative figuration. The drawn, linear elements act like a narrative text or musical score within the mood and harmony of the overall chromatic setting or symphony. What we have are works of theatre/opera. The abstraction is the stage set, the figuration is the drama."