Light and Space in the Prison-State


Light and Space in the Prison-State

By Matthew Lax January 16, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

On November 7, 2016, the first court hearings were held at the new First Street Federal Courthouse at 350 W 1st Street in Downtown Los Angeles. When the project was initially conceived in 2013, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the building would “turn an empty lot into an important part of the Civic Center cityscape.” The 633,000 square foot, ten-story fortress that cost $350 million to complete would soon be nicknamed “The Cube.”1

Just beyond the front doors, the lobby functions as a semi-rectangular neo-panopticon. Passage from any of the twenty-four courtrooms and thirty-two justice chambers are visible to the guards in the lobby below, or from upper outposts within the sky-lit courtyard. Amidst the gentrification crisis2 in Los Angeles, as well as the entire country, it's hard to ignore the sentiment of Garcetti’s vision for the city—likening a government building to the standard white cube model of contemporary art galleries and museums, a form which ostensibly advocates for a “neutral” viewing space. Adjacent to the redeveloped neighborhood of Bunker Hill with its own history of displaced communities, the First Street Courthouse is anything but neutral. Like the gallery space, its very design and infrastructure is deeply rooted in an colonial, patriarchal history—a kind of “Foucauldian social management” of bodies, space, and time according to falsely universalized Western and white aesthetics and mythologies.3

First Street Federal Courthouse. Courtesy of General Services Administration (GSA).

The Cube is just one of the properties managed by the General Services Administration (GSA). An independent agency of the United States government established in 1949 by President Harry Truman, GSA’s primary responsibility is the acquisition, construction, and management of federal real estate. GSA’s Art in Architecture Program continues government-led efforts dating back to the 1850s, as well as New Deal-era initiatives4 to commission artworks by living artists specifically for federal buildings.

These commissions, which include the most traditional media—painting, photography, and sculpture—constitute the Fine Arts Collection, touted as America’s oldest and largest public art collection. In accordance with federal edicts, “GSA is required to allocate one-half of one percent of each public building's estimated construction cost for the design, fabrication and installation of site-specific, permanently installed artwork...which belong to the American people, and are held in public trust for current and future generations.”5

After successfully maneuvering through the metal detectors, one encounters a 7.75- by 43-foot painting hanging above the lobby’s grand staircase; Untitled (White Black Red Yellow Blue) (2004–2016) by Mary Corse glimmers with her signature glass beads. Lying just atop the surface of the painted canvas, the beads reflect and refract the natural light, a technique perfected over a long career in abstract expressionism and the male-dominated Light and Space movement. Untitled is divided into eleven panels, in a non-alternating distribution of five colors: white, black, red, blue, and yellow. Flanked by white on either end, the red and blue gradients melt into the adjacent blacks. The yellow grounding is the painting’s objective center, while the white seeks to blur its dimensional constraints, blending into the contiguous wall.

Mary Corse. Untitled (White Black Red Yellow Blue), 2004–2016; glass microspheres in acrylic on canvas; 7.75 x 43 ft. Commissioned through the Art in Architecture Program, Fine Arts Collection, U.S. General Services Administration.

Opposite Corse is a six-panel painting, untitled (black stars on blue field), by mixed-media artist Gary Simmons. Organized in a three-by-three grid, the piece is a surprisingly whimsical departure from Simmons’s more well-known work, which uses archetypes of American culture to address issues of race and class.

At the southern end of the lobby, Yosemite Falls (2016), a series of photographs by Catherine Opie, hangs across six levels of the building. A vertical, fragmented hexaptych of the waterfall in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the topmost photograph is simply the sky, followed by the crest of the waterfall, traveling down its expanse to the fifth floor where an image of the collecting water reflects the entire landmark.

Catherine Opie. Yosemite Falls (detail), 2016; archival pigment prints. Commissioned through the Art in Architecture Program, Fine Arts Collection, U.S. General Services Administration.

Opie’s work recalls the German word waldeinsamkeit, the feeling of being subsumed by the majesty of the natural world: being alone in the woods. Despite the courthouse’s sustainable energy design, Yosemite Falls feels out of place, reinforcing the towering and dominant nature of the building as the viewer looks up, and inevitably senses the weight of the structure pushing back. Opie claims the project was inspired directly by the architecture: “’ll have to roam the building in order to experience the piece....There won’t be one vantage point....You have to experience it by actually experiencing the architecture, the site.”6 If the Fine Art Collection is truly for the American people, who takes a trip to a courthouse to simply experience art, let alone architecture? The image becomes contradictory; what does it mean if this simulacrum is the last wondrous landscape experienced before going inside?

This is not a critique of these artists’ practices, but an inquiry into why these particular artworks were chosen for this particular building. GSA publications use language such as “decorate” and “adorn” to describe the artworks’ relationship to the building. The absence of the word “curation,” according to GSA Office of Strategic Communication, is semantic,7 yet the question of how these pieces are selected and function within the courthouse is ultimately a curatorial one, as well as a civic issue. Commissions are made through GSA’s National Artist Registry, which is open to portfolio submissions from any American artist (citizens or lawful [sic] permanent residents of the United States). An advisory panel composed of local and national art experts—the project’s lead architect, the federal client, community representatives, and GSA staff—is responsible for selecting work that speaks best to a given project and site.

The courthouse’s postmodern glass facade mirrors the aesthetic trademarks of Los Angeles’s “re-centering” of the Downtown district,8 echoing Tony Bennett’s theories on public control via state-funded cultural institutions. The white cube’s neutrality is already contested as a false presumption; a Modernist presentational leftover devised to provide artworks as fixed, and in supposedly objective conditions for analysis, while maintaining hegemonic value systems. In the case of the courthouse, who could possibly represent the Los Angeles community on GSA’s advisory panel: a displaced, former resident of Bunker Hill or a new downtown resident paying an average rent of more than $3,000 a month?

First Street Federal Courthouse. Courtesy of General Services Administration (GSA).

While the cases heard in federal court are limited to issues as outlined by the U.S. Constitution and Congress—claims against the United States government, crimes committed on Federal property, crimes or disputes crossing state-lines, immigration, bankruptcy, copyright, maritime, patent issues, violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law, etc.—and are therefore different from the more common convictions of state courts, it is impossible to ignore the entanglements of the two. In a space dominated by a complicated and prejudiced legalese, it is the entire justice system that becomes abstract and inaccessible to the very people it purports to protect through the maintenance of the oppressive status quo prioritizing certain lives over others. Hanging in the lobby, Corse’s painting transforms into a literal symbol of that oppression—six looming, vertical prison bars, twinkling with the same material used in the invisible labor of convicted inmates to illuminate freeway signs and license plates at night.9


  1. Rosenfeld Karissa, “SOM Breaks Ground on Los Angeles' Courthouse.” Arch Daily, 15 Aug. 2013,
  2. Carolina A. Miranda, “‘Out!' Boyle Heights Activists Say White Art Elites Are Ruining the Neighborhood...but It’s Complicated.” Los Angeles Times, 14 Oct. 2016,
  3. Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. Routledge, 1995.
  6. Mimi Zeiger, “Catherine Opie on Designing a Monumental Artwork for SOM's Los Angeles Court House.”, The Architect's Newspaper, 29 Apr. 2016,
  7. Public Affairs Officer. (2017, December 21). Email interview with GSA Office of Strategic Communication, Pacific Rim Region.
  8. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. Verso Books, 2006.
  9. Marc Morjé Howard, “Explaining American Punitiveness: Business.” Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 176–184.

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