THE BLOG

Deep Gray

06/04/2010 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In August of 2003, I was shaken by a radio news report while working in my studio. The reporter was describing the murder of John Geoghan, a key figure in the Boston-area Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandal. One of few defrocked priests in this scandal to serve a prison sentence, Geoghan was convicted of sexually abusing children and in the "protective" custody at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts when fellow inmate Joseph Druce trapped him in his cell and barricaded the door. Druce proceeded to attack Geoghan and, as I recalled the reporter saying, "jumped off the bed repeatedly onto Geoghan's chest until it caved in." Druce was serving a life sentence for murdering a man who made a pass at him when Druce was hitchhiking.

Immediately clear to me was the implicit involvement of the correctional institution itself--why would Geoghan be jailed anywhere near a man with Druce's history? I remember fighting off nausea as the story telescoped through layers of sickness.

About six months ago, while doing research for a current exhibition, I came across a YouTube video with Druce's name attached. The 10-minute footage had been captured on a Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center surveillance camera near Geoghan's cell. How this footage made it to YouTube is still a mystery and is, to my knowledge, the subject of an investigation. In the color video, black clad correctional officers congregate and disperse around the cell door, gesturing and skittering about in an attempt to get through the door and stop Druce. Watching this, I experienced enormous ambivalence. The black forms on white ground, the abstract quality of the men's movements mesmerized me. I couldn't stop watching the guards as they participated in what seemed like a task-oriented group dance patterned after ants swarming a sugar cube, yet I was simultaneously consumed with repulsion by the act I knew was taking place on the other side of the door.

At the time Geoghan was killed, my art was in the midst of transition. For the previous decade, my work was largely concerned with the theme of manipulation--a topic I explored primarily through the medium of puppet theater, which allows for the integration of sculpture, light, movement, music, and storytelling. The relationship of the manipulator and the manipulated is also inherent in the form; the puppet is, after all, the perfect symbol of the individual in society, largely at the mercy of forces beyond its control. My puppet theater works were stylized, ritualistic performances that often involved a struggle with an overwhelming authority, like that of the Catholic Church, which governed my formative education.

In 2003, my work was moving toward a less narrative, more abstract form that ultimately developed into sculpture and installation-based works. Many of these works address articles of belief, particularly within the Catholic Church. I take doctrines or edicts, for instance, and transcribe them, then cut the sentences from the paper and use them as the basis from which to build cloud-like sculptures, rendering these "truths" neutral or unintelligible and thereby eliminating the possibility of fixed meaning.

After watching the prison surveillance footage, I began to devise a work in keeping with this notion of manipulating the white/black, right/wrong duality to produce another form--a grayness, if you will.

In this new work, I collaborated with artist Ryan Kelly to create a video based on the prison guards' movements as they try to stop what seems (to me) to be somewhat intentional on the part of the institution and is certainly an expression of the complicated nuances within the strict paradigm of white/black, right/wrong. The result is the video installation Black and Light, which incorporates the surveillance footage found on YouTube. As with much of my current work, my concern here is not with interpretation or criticism, but rather with immersion. I intend to create forms and spaces that draw the viewer into the deep grayness that permeates what might seem at first glance to be a simple dichotomy.

As if I needed a reminder of grayness, on May 13th, as my family members were flying to New York for the opening of my current exhibition, my former classmate Michael Beuke was put to death by lethal injection in Ohio. Michael and I attended an all-boys Catholic high school and shared two classes my freshman year. One was an art course, taught by a man who would change my life in the most positive way, and the other was phys. ed. presided over by a coach of the varsity football team, a source of great pride for the school.

One memorable 'gym' class involved a game of dodge ball. Mike, a morose, uncoordinated kid--a true pariah--was the target of much verbal and physical abuse at the school, and this day in P.E. was no exception. At one point Mike was trapped in the corner of the gym as students pummeled him with balls and called out insults. I remember sitting in the bleachers (already tagged out of the game), upset by the sight of the coach roaring with laughter and egging the boys on. Mike was later expelled from the school by the principal, a priest who would eventually be placed on 'administrative leave' as the Archdiocese fought--and then settled--lawsuits brought against him for sexual abuse.

I had largely forgotten about Mike until one day in 1983 when he made the local headlines. Mike, then 21, was arrested for murder. Dubbed the "homicidal hitchhiker" by the local press, he was convicted of thumbing rides, taking his drivers to remote fields and shooting them; he made three attempts at murder and one was successful. Mike spent twenty-seven years on Ohio's death row, where, according to members of my family who visited and wrote letters to Mike, he became an intensely spiritual person (embracing the religion that earlier rejected him), expressing deep remorse for his actions. His appeals were based on medical reports identifying Mike as a victim of brain damage. Mike was reportedly reciting the Catholic rosary when he died.

Mark Fox is a New York-based artist. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art among other institutions. Fox's exhibit MONSTR, which includes the video Black and Light, is on view through June 26 at the Larissa Goldston Gallery: 530 W. 25th St. 3rd Fl. NYC. A selection of Fox's work and latest news may be seen at www.markfoxstudio.com.