For some, being a criminal means breaking the law. For others, law enforcement officials themselves are seen as criminals. Police and Thieves, the latest exhibit at the Hyde Park Arts Center, acknowledges that the distinction between those who commit crimes and those who enforce the law is never quite so black and white.
The exhibit, which includes drawings, photographs, films, and sculptures from a variety of artists, examines the conflicting relationship of power between criminals and cops and the stereotypical images of heroism and immorality that are associated with both, depending on who you’re talking to and what neighborhood you’re visiting.
Curators Karla Diaz and Mario Ybarra Jr. were inspired by the reggae song “Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin, which describes the struggle between cops and criminals from both perspectives. Both from L.A., a city with a turbulent relationship with the law, the curators look towards their own and other cities to explore the complex relationship between police and thieves across the country. The exhibit brings together artists from both L.A. and Chicago, another city with a long and troubled relationship with law enforcement.
Perhaps the piece most indicative of Chicago’s complicated relationship with law and authority figures is “Daley Riot,” by Chicago-based artist Ray CRO Noland. The painting features a menacing-looking Mayor Daley dressed in riot gear with a large badge that reads “Welcome to Chicago.” He looms large, challenging the audience, with the Chicago skyline and two Chicago Police Department vans in the background.
The painting was inspired by Daley’s response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 28-year ban on carrying concealed handguns in 2010 when he said, “Welcome to America. Americans kill each other.” The painting exposes the inherent conflict between a legal system that both allows the ownership of concealed handguns and prosecutes their use.
The artists featured in the exhibit are diverse. They come from many different backgrounds and use an array of mediums and subjects, demonstrating that relationships to law enforcement and criminality are relevant to all kinds of people. An installation by Gusmano Cesaretti called “Before the Revolution” consists of photographs of places in L.A., Chicago, and Panama that seem dark and criminally infested. A video by artist Meg Cranston depicts her friend Steven Wong in his prison cell, where he is serving a 33-year prison sentence for drug possession in Thailand. Perhaps the most disconcerting part of the piece is his constant smile; like society, he has become complacent.
Wilmington, CA-based artist Arnoldo Vargas’s piece called “In Memoriam: Bike Misdemeanor Leads to Post-Injunction Officer Involved Shooting, Watson and L Street” takes its title from the actual headline of an area newspaper, highlighting the one-sided view on criminality the media often takes. Vargas recreates the street memorial from this particular scene and photographs it in other locations where people have been killed. In doing so, he hopes to make audiences think twice about labeling criminals before considering how they are portrayed in the news.
Vargas’s other installation, “Notice to Appear—Defendant’s Copy,” shows a set of photographs of high school students along with police tickets issued to them for truancy. It asks the audience to consider the implications of a society that often criminalizes people from a very young age and how that criminalization effects youth.
While the exhibit highlights interesting aspects of the relationship between criminality and law enforcement, it makes no claims about what is wrong with the current status quo or what the ideal relationship should look like. However, it accomplishes what it sets out to do by sparking a dialogue. Though it’s called Police and Thieves, the exhibit speaks more to police and society, and how we should remember to examine critically the differences and similarities between crime and the law.