Work of the Penitent

New drawings by Raymond E. Mingst

December 2, 2007 – January 27, 2008

There have been prisons ever since there have been civilizations with laws that could be violated, but the idea of reforming the criminal was a notion of the kind-hearted Quakers. The Quaker idea of prisoner rehabilitation was the penitentiary. It included isolating the prisoner in a cell by himself with his thoughts. The assumption was, that after a few days of idleness, the prisoner would request something to do, whereupon, he would be given a Bible and work. When he wasn’t working the prisoner was expected to read the Bible and reflect on his misdeeds. Through prayer and reflection the prisoner would come to understand the wrong of his sins and crimes and repent. In order to foster his new life of redemption he was not allowed visitors or contact with any other prisoners. It was thought that without contact the prisoners’ cronies and cohorts would disperse or disappear. Upon release the prisoner would begin a new life, free from his evil past.

Raymond E. Mingst’s new drawings featured in his new exhibition Work of the Penitent follows the concepts of the Quaker penitentiary. Mingst’s drawings are reminiscent of Al Held with their abstract shapes, mostly circles, drawn in black ink or black acrylic, outlined in white. However, Al Held’s work explored the abstract spatial relationships of shapes, while Mingst’s shapes have psychological and emotional lives. The ground Mingst uses in these drawings are the blueprints of a maximum security prison, which both graphically and conceptually lend further dimension to his work. Blueprints, being an inexpensive way of reproduction, are notoriously unstable and not meant as a permanent record of the building project. This quality lends Mingst’s drawings the ephemeral air of Tibetan sand paintings. Like the sand paintings, Mingst considers the circular shapes mandalas, each image is to be meditated upon in the context of its blueprint ground. The mandalas are variously poked or prodded with sharp lance-like shapes. Some have smaller shapes inside. All of the mandalas are delineated with a white outline which gives the black space more importance; the space is constrained by the white line, held in, imprisoned.

The feelings of confinement and aggression are strong in some of these drawings, as if the actions that bring one to prison are being considered. Others have interior shapes that seem to represent the layers of emotion being buried and uncovered, bringing with those emotions pointed pangs (of guilt, of remorse?) Still others seem to have reached a sense of calm or of resolution. Whether any of these have achieved the transcendence of the penitent is up to the viewer. This internal soul searching is hinted at with the resemblance of many of the drawings to alchemical diagrams and antique charts of heavenly bodies. The planetary chart imagery alludes to the concept of cycles; do we go around for eternity, doomed to repeating the same mistakes? The alchemical concept, like the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, brings to mind whether we have free will to learn from our actions and grow into something better. The Quakers believed that they had the answer.

—Arthur Bruso