Last autumn, Bay Area artist Monica Lundy began poring through the California State Archives in Sacramento, searching for source material for her impending M.F.A. show at Mills College. Lundy, the recipient of this year’s Jay De Feo Award, came upon a treasure trove of antique books that dovetailed with her fascination for the history of incarceration, particularly the incarceration of women. In volume after brittle, yellowing volume, thousands of mug shots from the late 1800s through the 1930s showed female inmates at the Stockton, California State Mental Hospital and the infamous San Quentin State Prison, where women were interned until 1932. The reasons for the women’s imprisonment ranged from the anachronistic and spurious (“hysteria”) to the sinister (aggravated murder). Haunted by these images, the artist went on to use them as the starting point for several exhibitions, including the current “Obscure Histories.”
Lundy’s gouache-on-paper portraits of the inmates, based on the women’s mug shots and titled after their identification numbers, are laid out in two grids. One of them runs two paintings high by two across, the other three by three, much like prisoners crowded into lineups or cells. While the color palette ranges from drab gunmetal blue to a more harrowing dried-blood sienna, Lundy avoids bleakness by finding the resilience and, yes, the beauty, in each troubled countenance. In works such as “2437,” she exhibits a virtuosity with surface effects, leaving strategic slivers of paper unpainted, such that searing flashes of white blaze up out of the somber eddies of gouache. The technique manages to look both spontaneous and meticulously planned. With her fluid brushstrokes, intuitive compositions, and knack for conveying sumptuousness and sensuality even in the midst of abject sadness, Lundy lets us imagine what a turn-of-the-century portraitist such as John Singer Sargent might have uncovered had he trained his eye on society’s disenfranchised echelons rather than its privileged.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, “Department of Mental Hygiene, 1934,” stretches across the gallery’s expansive south wall. A striking hybrid of painting and sculpture, it is comprised of clay slathered over an armature of nails. Viewed close up, the work is a messy, abstracted topography reminiscent of Anselm Kiefer’s mutant surfaces. At mid-distance, the smears and glops coalesce into human features and garments: a beard, a pair of bushy eyebrows, a nurse’s cap, a doctor’s bow tie. From far remove, the piece’s full impact registers, and the viewer beholds a sepia-tinted group portrait of the doctors and nurses at the Stockton asylum. The cold formality and dread-inducing, proto-Nurse-Ratched efficaciousness of this convocation affords a chilling counterbalance to the vulnerability implied in the prisoner portraits. As the clay dries and cracks over the course of the exhibition’s two-month run, chunks of imagery will flake off the armature, collecting on the floor and leaving ghostly stains on the wall. It all evokes the impermanence of memory and the capacity of photography not so much to capture the fleeting moment, but to embalm it. Across the body of work, Lundy gives voice to generations of women whose voices were silenced first by the penal system, then by death. This is a historically rigorous and emotionally affecting show.