Kenneth Key (Observation) (2019)

Kenneth Key (Observation),​ 2019
Digital print, limited edition, dimensions variable
Presented by the Compassion Works for All “Prison Portrait Project,” New Deal Gallery, Little Rock, Arkansas November 2-3, 2019

Eight black and white drawings of Kenneth Key surround the gallery, with a dot at the center of the gallery floor. The dot symbolizes the single guard tower at Stateville Correctional Center, where Kenneth Key is serving life in prison. Each drawing is scaled to reflect the size of a prisoner’s head as viewed by the prison guard from 78 feet away. (1)

The Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, where Kenneth Key is serving life in prison, is a panopticon, an institutional and architectural system of control originally designed in the 18th century to reduce the number of security guards in a prison to one by placing a single watchtower at the center of the prison’s rotunda. In his 1791 description of the panopticon, the designer Jeremy Bentham calls this form of surveillance an “invisible omnipresence,” and later in 1843, a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.” (2)

In art history, observation can be understood as the relationship between the artist and their subject, or the object or person viewed. In Western art, one-point perspective as developed in the Renaissance is often used in depicting objects in pictorial space. Here, the viewer assumes the position of a camera lens, viewing the subject from a fixed and uncompromising position. In Cubism, the subject is drawn from multiple angles, making their representation a fractured image and providing a psychological alternative to realism. Marcel Duchamp’s revolutionary “readymades” (first designed in 1913) signal concepts defined by the artist without concern for taste, and turn every day found objects into art. In the latter half of the 20th Century, Yayoi Kusama’s Mirror Rooms transform ordinary rooms into infinite spaces using only mirrors, while Bruce Nauman uses surveillance cameras and televisions as sculptures, allowing viewers to witness themselves from varying angles in rooms and corridors. Contemporary artists like Kusama and Nauman work with new materials and media that reflect the nature of time and space and the effect we as viewers have on it.

In phenomenology, the term “the other” identifies “the other human being, in his and her differences from the Self.” (3) Thus, in analyzing artworks that represent “the other,” one must also recognize themselves and how one makes observations. A portrait provides knowledge along with security, allowing the viewer to examine another invisibly. This is also a form of surveillance.

1 Sight-Size Measuring –
2 Panopticon –
3 Other (Philosophy) –