Through the artist's gaze, a mugshot becomes art, otherness turns to affirmation
When political artist Christine Cousineau accidentally stumbled on a collection of mugshots, she became captivated by their unmediated rawness. A deep dive into the workings of the criminal justice system revealed how biased it was especially towards racialized groups. As an act of political subversion, she started the Outlaws project, painting the portraits of these individuals to restore their humanity and start a conversation on racism.
Heads Lifestyle: What first drew you to mugshots?
Christine Cousineau: I accidentally stumbled upon a page of mugshots thanks to Google. At first I was fascinated by the unmediated rawness and immediacy of the images. They are the opposite of the Photoshopped images that inundate TV, magazines and social media. These were photos of people in absolute dire circumstances, perhaps experiencing the worst moment of their life. I was surprised at the wide variety of emotions that range from utter despair to defiance. The sheer number of mugshots was overwhelming—every age, gender, and economic status was represented.
HL: What is the purpose of a portrait?
CC: Traditionally, a portrait was intended to capture the likeness of an individual and to portray certain aspects of their character through elements like the expression and posture of the subject. Up until the invention of photography, a portrait was limited to the rich and powerful; now almost everyone has access to the means to create a portrait. With the development of Modern Art, the portrait became not only a representation of the sitter but also a reflection of the artist. A good example of this would be Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt or the portraits by Picasso of his lovers. The stylistic elements and artistic concepts held by the artist become as important as, and in some cases supersede, the idea that the purpose of a portrait is foremost to attain a likeness of the sitter.
HL: What do you hope to capture in your portraits?
CC: The goal of my portraits is to capture the humanity of the subject. I want the viewer to see the person portrayed as an individual and to recognize something in them that they, the viewer, can identify with or feel empathy for.
HL: How can art advance difficult conversations in society?
CC: Simply put, the portraits of mugshots serve to illustrate the overrepresentation of African Americans in the justice system, to capture the humanity and individuality of the arrestees with compassion and to infer their worth and value as human beings through the long process of having their portrait painted. The point of the project is to draw attention to the situation and to start a conversation about racism in both America and Canada.
I accidentally stumbled upon a page of mugshots. At first I was fascinated by the unmediated rawness and immediacy of the images.
HL: How long does it take you to complete a portrait?
CC: The length of time it takes to paint a portrait varies widely. It is dependent on the size and painting style. The more stylistically “realistic,” the longer it takes. The larger the painting, the longer it takes. And then there is the indefinable aspect—sometimes a painting will go smoothly and it will be done in a week or two. Unfortunately that rarely happens. Most of the time the painting process is a struggle, a frustrating battle with many defeats until finally the painting reaches a barely acceptable degree of finish. I will then leave it and weeks later I will return to it with fresh eyes and work on it more. In other words, I am rarely satisfied and, unless I have a deadline, a painting is never finished.
HL: What message do you hope to convey in your Outlaws portraits?
CC: Outlaws is my response to the dissemination of mugshots published online. It is a series of paintings based on these images. Contemporary theory has demonstrated the complex ways in which control over images has been central to maintaining domination across class, race, sexuality and gender lines. In painting a portrait inspired by a mugshot, I am saying, Look at this person. This is a human being. They are worthy of being seen. They are worthy of being (re)presented in the cultural enterprise of Fine Art. They are not other. They are us.
In painting a portrait inspired by a mugshot, I am saying, Look at this person. This is a human being. They are worthy of being seen.
HL: Tell us about the compassion you feel for your subjects?
CC: Although the form that mugshots adhere to is unchanging, there is no limit to the expression that a photograph can capture in the split-second frozen moment. For every painting I do of a mugshot, I feel a kind of love for the person I am painting. I know that may seem ridiculous, as I clearly do not know these people. And yet it is the basis of each work of art. I see painting the portraits of these individuals as an act of love, and as a political action.
HL: Tell us about the process of “othering” by the criminal justice system?
CC: The widespread publication of mugshots online and in the press is part of a process of manufacturing otherness. People who become enmeshed in the criminal justice system, regardless of their crime, are ostracized and demonized by society before they even go to trial. Each painting attempts to subvert the purpose of the mugshot, which is, in part, to marginalize and categorize. The act of painting a portrait imbues a value on the subject. It directs the gaze of the viewer towards someone with the imperative that this person be seen. It states that this is a human being who is experiencing something and feels something and that feeling can be recognized and understood. If this step is taken, if a person can recognize and identify what the person in the portrait is feeling then the subject of the painting is no longer restricted to the category of criminal, they are no longer entirely “other.”
Each painting attempts to subvert the purpose of the mugshot, which is, in part, to marginalize and categorize.
HL: Is it true that booking photographs remain part of the public record even if the person is never convicted of a crime?
CC: Yes, it is true mugshots remain part of the public record even if a person is found innocent of a crime. I realized that the arrest photographs, which are widely published in newspapers and online, represent one of many aspects of the justice system in America that is, in my opinion, terribly unfair. There is no contingency in place to remove the mugshots of people found innocent after a trial. Websites will charge to have the mugshots removed. Although any given website will have a disclaimer indicating the presumed innocence of the people displayed, it is not prominent. What is clear is the photo, the name and age of the arrestee and the reason for the arrest.
HL: How do public mugshots fit into our view of criminality?
CC: The presumption of innocence unless proven guilty is the basic principal of the justice system in Canada and the United States. In the United States, in direct opposition to this right, is the dissemination of mugshots and arrest records, which are published prior to a trial. In other words, the presumption of innocence is undermined, effectively condemning the individual to great prejudice.
Mugshots are taken early on in the criminal justice process. It is the first step in the public labelling of an individual as a criminal.
HL: What is the connection between your Outlaws project, the War on Drugs and the Black Lives Matter movement?
CC: Mass incarceration and the War on Drugs are inextricably intertwined and have resulted in the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement. The War on Drugs, which began in 1970s, was a manufactured issue. At the time, the population of the United States was not concerned with recreational drug use. Drugs became the number one reason for arresting and incarcerating huge numbers of people and it has been well documented that the system of mass incarceration disproportionately affects people of colour and the poor.
At this time in the United States, 97% of all prisoners have not had a trial. The system simply cannot accommodate the number of trials that would be needed if each person charged with a crime had one. To deal with the massive number of arrests, the role of a public defender is effectively to work out a plea deal. Imprisonment and guilt are negotiated through plea bargains, not through the right to a speedy trial as guaranteed in the U.S. constitution. The question of guilt or innocence, determined by a fair trial is virtually nonexistent unless you have money to hire a lawyer.
The mugshot is taken early on in the criminal justice process. It is the first step in the public labelling of an individual as a criminal. In the United States, irrespective of the reason for an arrest, the message is that a criminal is someone to be feared and someone to be punished, regardless of the fact that in many cases the person in question is being arrested for something that is illegal in one state and legal in another. And since African Americans are disproportionately arrested, their mugshots serve to reinforce racist stereotypes, and it is those stereotypes that I attempt to subvert in the paintings.
African Americans consume marijuana in the same percentage of population as white Americans but they are almost four times more likely to be arrested for it. Every aspect of this fact is devastating and exemplifies white privilege and the arbitrary nature of the laws.
HL: Around nine-in-ten U.S. marijuana arrests are for possessing the drug, rather than selling or manufacturing it. In 2018, 663,000 arrests were made for marijuana-related offences, amounting to 40% of total drug arrests in the U.S. That’s a lot of mugshots to choose from for something that an overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (91%) believe should be legal for medical and/or recreational use. What do you think of the plight of individuals still incarcerated for minor drug charges like marijuana possession in state/countries where cannabis is now legal or on its way to being decriminalized?
CC: It is, of course, horrendous that anyone is in jail for simple possession of marijuana and I would extend that further to include all recreational drugs. It didn't take long to recognize that the mugshots were a bleak visual record of the inequalities of the American justice system. And with a little research it became clear that the whole system is appallingly racist. African Americans consume marijuana in the same percentage of population as white Americans but they are almost four times more likely to be arrested for it. Every aspect of this fact is devastating and exemplifies white privilege and the arbitrary nature of the laws. It seems surreal that someone can be spending a good portion of their life behind bars because they were born African American in Florida as opposed to Colorado where marijuana is legal. Prohibition doesn't work; it leads to greater harm and crime.
HL: The Outlaws portraits are an ongoing project you started five years ago. How has it evolved over time?
CC: Each portrait in the series is based on one mugshot. In the first year, I painted both males and females but have since decided to focus exclusively on portraits of women. Stylistically, my painting has become more abstract, more expressive than it was in the beginning, focusing on expressing the emotional rather than striving for an accurate likeness of the subject. The paintings range in size from the smallest at 12x16 inches to the largest at 30x40 inches.
I have started to take the Outlaws series in a different direction integrating them into my general art practice. I recently completed a painting that uses the image of a woman—her face is painted from a mugshot—combined with the body of a young Queen Elizabeth. The painting is called Outlaw Princess.
Stylistically, my painting has become more abstract, more expressive than it was in the beginning, focusing on expressing the emotional rather than striving for an accurate likeness of the subject.
HL: Tell us about your approach to making art?
CC: In general, my art practice fuses historical painting techniques and digital technology. Each painting is composed of fragments of photographs from a variety of sources, which are compiled in Photoshop to form an entirely new image, which is then painted on canvas. The final image could include a face from a 1890s studio portrait, a dress found in the pages of a fashion magazine, the arm and handbag of the Queen of England digitally cut from a news photo. The chosen fragments are combined to reflect a strong and complex psychological portrait. I am influenced by folk art and fairy tales and Jungian psychology. I am interested in examining the social construction of normality and otherness and in how this division has informed art and culture. My art practice sits at the intersection between the resurgence of figurative, skill-based art and art that is the locus of social issues.
HL: In what direction will you be taking your art next?
CC: I am both fascinated and horrified by the huge gulf between the fantastical image of the United States being a great democracy—a land of freedom and equality and the America dream—and the reality. It is the most enormous instance of white washing or mass delusion ever imagined. I am not sure how that idea will translate into a series of paintings yet. I am also interested in making art about the devastating conditions and systematic racism directed towards the aboriginal people of Canada.
Christine Cousineau is a political artist based in Montreal. She creates complex psychological artworks that examine the social constructions and cultural divisions of normality and otherness. She holds a BFA from the University of Victoria and her artwork can be found in private collections in Canada, United States, Great Britain, France, Japan and Germany. She was a founding member of Artifact (Artists for Action), a collective of female artists with a concentration on making political art. After 10 years of painting murals in Nicaragua, NYC and Montreal, fundraising and holding workshops with Artifact, she decided to turn her attention to her own work. In her painting practice, she uses oil and acrylic paint producing both large- and small-scale figurative paintings.
Find out more about Christine Cousineau at www.christinecousineau.com
Follow her on Instagram at @cmcpainter
To purchase Christine’s work visit www.christinecousineau.com
The painting Outlaw Princess is currently on exhibit at Bridgeport Fine Art
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