Herbert Singleton was a compelling New Orleans folk artist, and his inclusion in the international art biennial Prospect.3 is an integral part of its focus on important, yet long overlooked, people and places. A lifelong resident of Algiers, Singleton was a carpenter before a drug habit landed him in prison. He was physically and mentally scarred by both by the time he died, at 62, in 2007, but his keenly observed experiences live on in the visceral social realism of wood carvings like Leander Perez (detail, pictured). Here the late Plaquemines Parish political boss points out a man in a work gang whose expression tells us this isn't going to end well. Singleton's subjects were deeply flawed outsiders like himself, and their stark pathos connects with our most fundamental human emotions in a manner not unlike Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novels.
Singleton's sharply etched focus on the dark side of the human psyche is seen in carved figures and bas reliefs painted in brilliant shades of Rust-Oleum featuring perpetrators, victims and mourners. Dr. Kilikey is a bas relief of a drug dealer preparing a user to shoot up. Both are archetypal figures in a pathological narrative that Singleton elaborates in a bas relief that begins with the name "Angola," under which scenes of youthful foibles lurch toward a tragic, electric-chair conclusion, all interwoven with scenes of an opossum hunt, and ending with the carved words, "Lawd Have Mercy."
Putting it all in context are Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick's classic, unflinching documentary photos of life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where prisoners appear like caged animals in banana republic zoos, or working in fields where they are indistinguishable from slaves laboring on antebellum plantations. The photographers have been working on this project for decades, and their recent video of a man who spent 30 years at Angola was recently exonerated by DNA evidence only underscores why this series is profoundly important.