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Rarely does an art exhibition speak to the importance and advocacy of art itself. Temporary Walls, curated by Heidi Marston and Lydia Ruby, on exhibit at the Rhys Gallery until March 4th, is a show of work by youths between the ages of 7 to 21 detained within the Department of Youth Services. Aided by art instuctors Brian Burckhardt and Derek Fenner, the youths create in a variety of media including sculpture, photography, drawing, and painting. All work sold from the show goes directly towards buying art supplies for the DYS art program.

Far beyond a quaint show of adolescent work, many of the pieces reveal an immediacy and desperation palpable within the detained youth, as well as the care and craft of artists in need of expressing themselves and with the time to do so. One wonderful series of work are constructions of paper cars, each unique and lovingly cut out and hand colored into school buses, luxury cars, and sports cars complete with all the tricked out accessories of the imagination. A companion to these handmade cars are photographs of the cars against computerized backdrops of urban scenes, both provoking a wistful fantasy of the intangible.

Other images are reimaginings of cultural figures like Tupac Shakur or art historical portraits such as Van Gogh’s self portrait, caricatures and cartoon illustrations of a variety of characters, or drawings of idealized beautiful things. One particularly powerful drawing is one of barred windows against the sky with textual accompaniement explaining the boredom and hopelessness of detainment.

What is most shocking about the exhibition are the unseen elements. The pieces of art exist with an anonymous artist: no name, no age, no understanding of how they came to become part of DYS. This anonymity was among the necessary conditions for the show, the Department of Youth Services feared any individual negative reprocussions of revealed identities. Any visual reference to violence, abuse, gangs, or drugs were also eliminated, sanitizing the imagery and constraining the voice of youth who have undoubtedly experienced such negativity. As a result, the artworks in a certain sense, reveal the ambivalence of an implied context, as well as the complexity of the series of structures imposed between the artist and their viewers. Before the exhibition was put up, it must be noted, the curators were told that some of the artists in the show had already been released by DYS and were subsequently murdered.

Images from exhibitions of marginalized communities can often have a predictability about them, an aura of expected with regards of the syntax of oppression, but this one does not. It explains, quite eloquently, the desires and discouragements of the youths, with a voice muffled through layers of physical estrangement.

The Rhys Gallery
Department of Youth Services

"Temporary Walls: The Visual Voices of Detained Youth" was on view February 10th - March 4th at the Rhys Gallery

All images are courtesy of the artists and the Rhys Gallery.

About Author

Ben Sloat is a Boston-based photographer, critic, and curator. He is a founding contributor of Big RED & Shiny.

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