Published February 26, 2016
At first glance, John Isiah Walton’s exhibition Rodeo, now on view at The Front in New Orleans, seems innocuous, even playful, with paintings of bulls diving through Pepto-Bismol pink skies toward men, frozen in space. But after a closer look, a smiling cynicism arises from the works. We, the viewers, are implicated as voyeurs in a decades-old tradition that exploits imprisoned men for entertainment: the Angola Prison Rodeo, “the Wildest Show in the South.”
Walton’s series of paintings and drawings depicts the rodeo at the Angola State Penitentiary, an 18,000-acre former slave plantation. The Angola Rodeo is the longest running rodeo held within prison walls in the nation. Each April and October, as many as 10,000 people fill the stadium to watch prisoners ride bucking bulls, catch wild horses, and most notoriously, try to be the last one seated at a poker table while a bull stampedes toward them. Walton’s paintings are a sly nod to the voyeurism of this ludicrous tradition. In White Bull (2016), a spectrum of pinks in quick, painterly brushstrokes holds the subjects in space. The frenetic, choppy brushwork endows the work with energy and intensity. Other than a small amount of ground rendered at the bottom of the canvas, the subjects in the painting do not inhabit any recognizable world; instead, they seem to orbit in a pink atmosphere. Perhaps this acknowledges the dislocation of men in prison, who no longer live in the outside world. In the painting, a white bull—its face like one of the figures in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—hovers, its hooves not yet sinking into the man below. There is tension in the depiction of both the man and the bull, rendered as flat shapes against the canvas, with few elements that suggest three dimensions: one leg depicted behind another leg, a hoof with a shadow. The tension of limited depth in the picture plane reminds the viewer that the painted mark is at once a thing in itself and the thing that it describes. We are looking both at the marks of the painting and at a depiction of the prisoners’ rodeo. We are voyeurs of this rodeo.
In Poker Face (2016), three men sit around a table, behind which looms a dark, hulking shape with horns and a tail. Walton’s rapid brushwork adds mass to the bull, evoking the prisoners’ tense wait for the stampeding, muscular beast. Short vertical strokes of bright pink create the space around the men and animal, conveying a frantic energy. One man in a purple hat turns away from the bull, his right arm raised as if to protect himself. The other two stiffly hold their arms in front of them, staring at their cards. For a person facing a life sentence in jail, the value of life changes. Perhaps the respect gained from being the bravest, the toughest to await the rampaging bull, is worth more than the injuries sustained. Though the prisoners choose to participate in the rodeo, perhaps they do so without regard for the danger due to the length of their sentences and little possibility for release. The rodeo exploits the inmates, especially the events like Convict Poker, depicted in Poker Face, that are only for Angola prisoners and are particularly dangerous.
Walton’s paintings reflect a deeply sarcastic tone, also apparent in the few sentences Walton wrote to describe the work: “I wanted to catch one of the perks of being on good behavior in the Louisiana prison system.” If this is a perk, what must everyday life be like? Perhaps this is the heart of his series. The Angola Rodeo is a fifty-year-old tradition in which prisoners willingly endanger themselves for other people’s entertainment. Walton’s art is a form of entertainment, too. Are we, as voyeurs of this work, implicated in a larger system of exploitation? As citizens of the largest prison system in the world, how can we not be?
John Isiah Walton: Rodeo is on view at The Front in New Orleans, through March 6, 2016.
 “Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s, and 20 times Germany’s.” Cindy Chang, “Louisiana Is the World’s Prison Capital,” Times Picayune, May 13, 2012.
 “The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration, with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails—a 500% increase over the past thirty years.” From “Fact Sheet: Trends in U.S. Corrections,” The Sentencing Project, http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_Trends_in_Corrections_Fact_sheet.pdf. Accessed February 1, 2016.