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Ex-prisoners speak their truths through art in the 'O.G. Experience'

From a recreated jail cell to portraits of those killed in police-involved shootings, the gallery exhibit displays the humanity of the formerly incarcerated.

The O.G. Experience in Chelsea showcases artwork by

The O.G. Experience in Chelsea showcases artwork by formerly incarcerated men and women. Patrick Junez Target Jr. of Harlem looks at "Apokaluptein: 16389067" by Jesse Krimes. "For me what really hit me is when you have a calling to do something it's just unstoppable," he said. "On bed sheets he did this and smuggled it out. There is talent and really human people behind bars. We disassociate people from humanity behind bars." Photo Credit: Marisol Diaz-Gordon

For three years, Jesse Krimes mailed pieces of bedsheets out of prison while serving a five-year sentence. The sheets were his art — he used hair gel and a plastic spoon to imprint images he found in the newspaper.

Six years later, his work, "Apokaluptein: 16389067" — 39 prison-issued sheets at 40 feet long and 15 feet tall — is on display in "The O.G. Experience," an art exhibit featuring the works of formerly incarcerated men and women, in conjunction with the release of a new HBO film, "O.G." that debuts on Saturday, Feb. 23.

Krimes' piece hangs like a tapestry at the Studio 525 NYC gallery in Chelsea, depicting images of war amid advertisements featuring happy women culled from The New York Times between 2010 and 2013. 

"I would make one section and mail it out and make another section and mail that out," he told amNewYork at the opening on Tuesday. "Obama was still president, Trump's advertisements were transferred in this. It was a way to mark time and keep my own sanity in the process." 

"[This exhibition] pushes back against this narrative that people who have been in prison are underrepresented and misrepresented and continually spoken for when they can speak for themselves." — Jesse Krimes

The time capsule-like piece shows what Krimes says is a problematic view of the world because the images of women in the ads are all interspersed with death and destruction .... "and then there's an ad for Macy's and an ad for J. Crew," he said.

Krimes, who co-curated the exhibit, has two other works in the gallery, including a reproduction of a solitary jail cell and a collection of used prison playing cards and soap that he altered with print. 

It's among the works of 14 other formerly incarcerated artists, which Krimes says is a first.

"It's never really been done before," he said. "A lot of times there are exhibitions that work through ideas or issues of incarceration, but they very seldom include people who have lived the experience. In many ways, this exhibition is designed to showcase the people who have lived that experience and are making incredibly critical and complex artwork. It pushes back against this narrative that people who have been in prison are underrepresented and misrepresented and continually spoken for when they can speak for themselves."

Mary Baxter's "Ain't I A Woman," is a triptych multimedia project with her own music that tells the story of her life before, during and after imprisonment. Her lyrics tell her truth and comment on the country's prison system: "It's not a school to prison pipeline, it's a prison to prison pipeline." 

Artist and co-curator Russell Craig used ox blood to paint Rorschach-like portraits of black Americans who were killed in police-involved shootings in "E-Val," which hangs along an entire wall within the gallery. A few feet away, his self-portrait is displayed, but instead of a canvas, Craig used his own legal documents during his incarceration, including parole papers, statements of employment and prison resident schedule, among others. 

Lucinda Martinez, HBO's senior vice president of multicultural and international marketing, says the exhibit picks up where "O.G." leaves off.

"It picks up on the hope part of it, the idea that prison can be restorative or spark the conversation about looking at justice not just as punitive, which is how our system currently works, mostly," she said. "It's about how [prisoners] can still be inspired and how there are programs of reform that could change the conversation. I think this exhibit forces you, through the art, to look past your first screen of judgment and see the humanity of people." 

If you go: The gallery is at Studio 525 NYC, 525 W. 24th St., and it is free and open to the public 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and on Monday, and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday.

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