Artist Gary Tyler, Wrongly Incarcerated for 41 Years on Death Row, Gets First Solo Show

Friday, July 28, 2023
Artist Gary Tyler, Wrongly Incarcerated for 41 Years on Death Row, Gets First Solo Show

Library Street Collective is thrilled to present We are the Willing, the first solo gallery exhibition by Los Angeles-based artist Gary Tyler, curated by Allison Glenn, opening on July 8th, 2023. Taken from the first lines of the motto for the Angola Prison drama club, which Tyler was president of for 28 years, “We are the willing” became an anchor for the artist, propelling him to think expansively about the potential impact his leadership could have on the shape of the drama club, where he relied on the space of performance to increase prison literacy, and for members to have a cathartic release through self-expression.

Growing up in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, Tyler remembers his mother, Juanita Tyler, creating stylish dresses for herself and his sisters, from patterns sold in the JCPenney and Sears catalogs. His grandmother was a quilter, creating ornate designs from discarded clothes and newspapers. This familial knowledge of textiles was useful for Tyler, employing it to patch his clothes, and in his graphic quilt designs sold at the Angola Rodeo. Similarly, the ready-made has always had a place in Tyler’s oeuvre. In the mid-1970s, Tyler used readily accessible materials, including matchsticks and cigarette boxes, to create picture frames and jewelry boxes, calling to mind Henry Taylor’s early paintings and the shadow boxes of reclusive assemblage artist Joseph Cornell.

Primarily working in textiles, Tyler learned to sew when he joined the Angola Prison Hospice Program, where participants created and sold elaborate handmade quilts to fund the program. Butterflies, flowers, and brightly-colored abstractions were common themes found in the applique patterned quilts he made in Angola. For Tyler, the image of the butterfly is symbolic of his life’s transformation, from being wrongly accused of murder at 16, to release from Angola 41 ½ years later. Although the butterfly remains a strong, recurring motif in Tyler’s work, this new body of applique quilts are created from photographs and images of his time incarcerated, many of which are on view in the vitrines that line the gallery walls. Hung from the walls at various depths, these works call to mind artist, traveler, and political activist Pacita Abad’s trapuntos, or high relief textile paintings. Although Tyler’s practice was not as peripatetic, he did learn to sew and quilt through relationships with others.

This new series of self-portraits, all created within the past year, are a point of departure for Tyler. Here, we see the artist maintaining a strong textile practice, yet focusing instead on revisiting photographs and videos that documented his time in Angola. Many of the source photographs Tyler used to create these textiles were taken from images widely circulated in the mass media and in protests calling for the artist’s release, taken from CCTV surveillance imagery of Tyler in his cell, or press photographs taken during pivotal moments in his ongoing legal case. In this new body of work, Gary revisits these moments in time, reclaiming these mediated images while asserting agency over his likeness and representation.

For a time in the early 70s, Tyler lived with his sister in Los Angeles, California. The artist fondly remembers attending Watts Summer Festival at Will Rogers Park during the summer of 1970, and that the energy of self-expression at this moment in history was very self-actualizing. Just as his time in post-Watts Rebellion LA was extremely formative, returning to St. Charles Parish as a 14-year-old was a difficult shift. Tyler returned with an awareness of histories that were not being taught in school, and vocalizing this in classroom settings quickly earned him the label of troublemaker. Wrongfully accused of murdering a 13-year old boy during a conflict that occurred when a mob attacked a bus he was on during the height of school desegregation in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, in 1974, Tyler would spend over four decades in Angola for a murder he did not commit.

Tyler’s story has local resonance. In 1974, Detroit was also experiencing severe challenges with public school desegregation, resulting from many factors, including the 1967 Detroit Uprising and ensuing white flight to the suburbs that the city experienced in the years following. Desegregation of public schools in the Metro Detroit area was such a contested topic, that the 1974 Milliken vs. The Bradley case regarding inter district bussing went all the way to The United States Supreme Court, who ultimately overturned the lower court’s ruling, “set[ting] a standard that desegregation was not a regional responsibility," (1). Civil Rights activist and longtime Detroit resident Rosa Parks was a tireless advocate for Tyler’s freedom and innocence. On June 13, 1976, at a rally held in Detroit, his mother Juanita Tyler, activist Walter Collins, and Parks spoke to a crowd of 350 people, advocating for Tyler’s release. Parks gave an inspiring keynote that evening, and continued to work to overturn Tyler’s conviction.

Gary Tyler: We are the Willing will be on view from July 8th, 2023 through September 6th, 2023 at Library Street Collective.

Image : Portrait of Gary Tyler in the studio, Photo by Dorian Hill

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