Anthony Warnick in his home studio in Cleveland.

Profile and photograph by Michael C. Butz

Years 35 • Lives Cleveland • Creates Cleveland • Degrees BFA in web and multimedia environments from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design; MFA in sculpture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art

The body of work Anthony Warnick has been building in recent years can be traced back to 1865, the year slavery in America was abolished. It’s a clause in the middle of the 13th Amendment – “except as a punishment for crime” – that fuels his practice because he feels that set the course for today’s disproportionate incarceration rate of African-American men.

“There’s a history there that is, for me, the thing we need to be wrestling with as a country right now,” he says.

Warnick grapples with it – and wants to make viewers grapple with it – through his art. Specifically, his work scrutinizes for-profit prisons and the overlapping interests of government and the prison industry.

“All of the research and writing talk about how much worse it is in for-profit prisons, which essentially are trying to save as much money as possible and are extracting as much wealth out of those incarcerated as possible,” he says. “So, there are all of these small things being born out of this beast.”

 “You May Choose” (2017). Prisoner-produced off-set prints from the Pickaway Correctional Institution in Orient, Ohio. Artwork courtesy of the artist.

“You May Choose” (2017). Prisoner-produced off-set prints from the Pickaway Correctional
Institution in Orient, Ohio. Artwork courtesy of the artist.

This ongoing series of work was first shown in December 2016 at SPACES Gallery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood and was most recently on view, with new pieces, in April as part of a Window to Sculpture Emerging Artist Series 2018 Exhibition at The Sculpture Center in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood.

“Broadly in my work, I’m interested in social systems – places where we as a society have made systems that we use to organize ourselves or control things,” he says. “Typically, I’m looking for places where those systems do more harm than good – and how often we make a system as a society and then are crushed by it.”

Warnick’s research-heavy creative process often includes purchasing things through Ohio Penal Industries, the state organization through which things manufactured in prison are sold. In the studio, he then embarks on determining how to best present the intellectual with the aesthetic so that it resonates with viewers.

“The thing art can do that very little else in our lives can is unsettle us to the point where we might start thinking about things,” he says.

“The works I’ve been making in this vein are unsettling and not the sort of things, hopefully, that you can walk away from and say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m glad that exists.’ They’re immoral objects in that they are the product of me purchasing something through a system that exploits people – and I’m the first to admit that makes me complicit in that system.

“Hopefully, what that does is it produces objects that are sort of like, ‘Oh, why would someone do this? This is terrible.’ But then, in an ideal situation, with some reflection, (people) realize that many of us are the beneficiaries of this system.

“Infinite Sleep” (2018). Prisoner-produced pillows, dimensions variable. Artwork courtesy of the artist.

“Infinite Sleep” (2018). Prisoner-produced pillows, dimensions variable. Artwork courtesy of the artist.

“The sort of thing that makes the work unsettling should make us unsettled with the system,” he says.

Growing up, Warnick was more interested in public affairs than art. The Washington, D.C. native’s father, before becoming a pastor, worked in politics, and as he grew up and his family moved to Los Angeles and later Kansas City, Mo., Warnick’s interest in political machinations never waned.

“I was definitely interested more in politics and social issues, and then I found art in the time after high school but before going to college,” he says. “I sort of bummed around in coffee shops for a while and realized one of the places where you can have interesting, rigorous conversations that aren’t quite as discipline-based as college would be around the arts.”

As conceptual as his art can be, it was the physicality of making something with his hands that drew him to art. He pursued sculpture, then, in part because it allows him to engage in his areas of interest.

“I’m in sculpture because it’s an open and inviting space, and also, it’s a space where the public sphere and politics have always been intertwined,” he says. “From ancient token sculptures to equestrian sculptures in Europe, there’s always been some sort of understanding that what we make goes into and engages the public sphere.”

When he isn’t making art, Warnick, on two fronts, is helping shape the work of young artists in the area. For starters, he lectures on matters of sculpture and expanded media at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

“The Pen” (2018). Neon, 12 x 15 inches. Artwork courtesy of the artist. Artwork courtesy of the artist.

“The Pen” (2018). Neon, 12 x 15 inches. Artwork courtesy of the artist. Artwork courtesy of the artist.

Further, he and his partner, fellow artist Kelley O’Brien, oversee The Muted Horn, a project space that hosts solo exhibitions for early-career artists. The 700-square-foot gallery is in the basement of the couple’s home – one of several units in a renovated former seed factory – in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

“It gives a space that is more experimental and doesn’t have some of the same pressures as a commercial gallery or a large institution, where hopefully things can be more open and experimental,” he says. “Often, especially early in your career, just having places to show work and get people to talk about it is the hardest part.” CV

Lead image: Anthony Warnick in his home studio in Cleveland.


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“Anthony Warnick, a sculptor and performance artist with a strong abhorrence of social injustices, is already making significant contributions to Cleveland’s arts community. Much of his past work paid homage to artists whom he admires, particularly Francis Alÿs, another man of deep conscience. With Anthony’s current concerns about the injustices of the American incarceration system and the, in all forms but name, modern slave labor that the inmates provide, he has come fully into his own as an artist.”

– Ann Albano, executive director, The Sculpture Center