“No Bingo for Felons” shows crime can be whimsical, horrible, poetic, and sometimes profoundly dull.
The name of the show comes from a bizarre yet still standing law in Bensalem, Pa., which bars criminals from operating bingo games.
The exhibition, at the Arcadia University Art Gallery in Glenside through November, started as a much larger show in Los Angeles, named after a Southern California law, “No Person May Carry a Fish into a Bar.”
“The idea for the first show was that it was going to be broad, and each subsequent version would take a narrow subsection of the original show and expand on it,” said co-curator Julian Hoeber.
The first thing that draws the eye upon entering the Arcadia gallery is a severed head floating in the middle of the room. “Anna Duval” (1977) is a reconstruction of the face of an unidentifiable murder victim. The bust by the late Frank Bender, a Philadelphia forensic sculptor, helped police identify the remains as that of Anna Duval who may have been killed by the mob.
The head gazes blankly at the opposite wall, where an unframed photo by Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss is adhered to the wall. A deeply black night seems to swallow the glowing light bar and headlights of “Police Car” (2011).
Across the room from the Strauss image is a mechanical object resting on its own travel trunk. It is (as artist Gregory Green indicates) a fully functioning nuclear bomb, except the plutonium at its core has been replaced by a Rawlings baseball.
In one of the corners of the gallery sits what looks like a small cardboard box. “Suspicious Package 2” (2010) by Dirk Skreber is actually cast in bronze and painted to resemble a cast-off box.
“All the traumatic moments are there — rooms with smashed chairs, the Bender head is not explicitly violent but we understand it to be a murder victim.
“‘Suspicious Package’ looks like something perhaps left behind, like a bomb,” said Hoeber. “These evoke the idea of fear and foreboding without creating something that titillates on the basis of a violent image.”
Puzzling photos capture a bit of Brooklyn, circa 1930
The show features a quartet of photographs taken by police crime-scene photographers in Brooklyn in the 1930s. They are from the collection of Luc Sante, a photography historian who has written extensively about police crime photos.
The pictures are artless, the images of floors populated by threadbare carpets and the legs of cheap furniture were taken by police for reasons that are not entirely clear to Sante.
“They indicate something, to show some trace clue or possibly just give the dimensions — you know, the subject was standing here, the event happened there. This is the distance between those two points,” said Sante. “I have no text. There are very few indications on the backs of the prints, only enough to let me guess they are from Brooklyn in the 1930s. What these crimes consist of, I have no idea.”
What Sante finds compelling is the fact that very little is happening in them.
“There’s a chalk marking, detectives’ shoes are visible in two of them,” said Sante. “The point is not even those items, as the fact that crime is indicated by the absence of crime, as the fact that these pictures are of such staggering banality that they could not have been taken for any other purpose than to record something truly dreadful.”
Sante has written several well-recieved books about crime and photography, including “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York” (1991) and “Evidence” (1992), a collection of photographs taken by the New York City police department between 1914 and 1918.
The pictures in the Arcadia show were purchased on eBay from a woman claiming to be the daughter of a now-deceased New York City detective. Sante has been combing through crime photo collections for a work-in-progress called “Further Evidence.”
“Among the private collections, some books I could not open — they are blood and guts,” said Sante about hunting for photographs. “I’m a little squeamish — I don’t mind admitting it — I’m not in it for the voyeuristic kicks. What drew me to the crime photos in the first place — they are the clearest record of how people lived. I was desperately looking for photographs inside of New York City tenements in the beginning of the 20th century, and these are the only ones I found.”
“For me, that’s my greatest interest in crime,” Sante continued. “The way crime connects to otherwise forgettable lives, forgettable instances, forgettable places. Crime seems to freeze life the way ash froze Pompeii.”