Reed White received his BFA in illustration from College of Visual Arts in St Paul, MN. and a Master of Arts degree in painting from MNSU in Mankato, MN. White is currently an adjunct professor for the art department at MNSU.
First and foremost, my reason for painting the Cruel and Unusual Punishment mugshot paintings is to study painting and grow as an artist. I am exploring my style trying to capture emotion through the expressions of the human face and exploring painting different flesh-tones. I don't want to waist time finding models when I could be painting, the jail roster is a bottomless resource of models to work from. The mugshots capture a complete spectrum of raw emotion. They are also copyright free photos. As well as a personal goal to grow as an artist, I am interested in painting mugshots for the contemplation they stimulate.
Beauty is not a goal of my portraits, at least not in the conventional definition of the term. When I ask someone if I can paint them, I start the conversation with something like this: "My paintings are not flattering. I am not painting a portrait for a commission. I am trying to make a piece of art, some intriguing paint on canvas that will stimulate thought. I am using you more as a reference to inspire art." A likeness to the sitter is not a necessity.
Cruel and Unusual Punishment is a collection of 104 paintings (12" by 9.25") displayed as one piece, either liner or in a grid format. The significance of 104 pieces is simply there happened to be 104 inmates in the jail roster the day I conceived of the project.
Painting mugshots, as dark as this may be, has a wonderful added element of raw human existence on a multitude of levels that encapsulates the underbelly of society. For some people the mugshot is the visual documentation of absolute rock bottom. In those eyes, I see a person just like me. Why them and not me? What lead them to that photo? I am interested in the different reactions people have; Some inmates seem to think they're at Glamour Shots, or posting selfies on SnapChat as this is just another photo op. Some seem to be proud. Some are filled with rage or shame. I am forced to think of the current state of racism and privilege, immigration, the justice system, mass incarceration, for-profit prisons, prohibition, legalization, addiction, mental illness, stupid mistakes, pure evil, the rich, and the poor. To me these paintings are so much more than a portrait of a person.
The taboo element that I do not have the convicts permission to paint them adds a political facet, hence the title, "Cruel and Unusual Punishment". A play on words, on one hand, some idiot artist is having his way with their image. On the other hand, mugshots are legally in the public domain and have no copy rights. Such recklessness on the part of the American government is a form of public shaming and has resulted in a legalized extortion. Many convicts have had to pay third party websites to remove their mugshot, name, and alleged crime. My art is the least of concerns when one considers the conditions some of the advocacy groups report.
I do not publish names or crimes, and as I stated before, a persons likeness is not my concern. Shaming is not my intention. I am more concerned with creating art; color combinations, brush marks, and beautiful gooey dribbles of paint. I want to capture a person's sole in their eyes, I want to tell stories and raise questions. Most importantly, I want to practice painting. Cruel and Unusual Punishment has allowed me to paint every race under the sun, tell stories of the good the bad and the ugly, and contemplate the human existence. I find all people beautiful and fascinating.