DEANA LAWSONby Jessica Bell Brown
SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO. | MARCH 1 – APRIL 7, 2018
I once heard the theorist Fred Moten beg a simple question: “Can black people be loved?” In this provocation, he interrogates the capability of the dominant culture, to love black people not out of a desire to possess black bodies, or praise black cultural forms, but to love out of the presupposition of black humanity. If Moten’s words were lyrics, Brooklyn-based Deana Lawson’s photographs could be the defining melody.
I have been captivated by Lawson’s work from the beginning of her career (over a decade), largely because there’s something quite extraordinary, even sly, going on in her framing of her subjects; a slow, methodical stripping away of familiar representations of loving blackness such as familiarity, desire, fetish, and exceptionalism. Rather than relying on these tropes she gives us comfort in the form of stunning images of black female nudes, adoring lovers, and families, and in an instant, just as easily strips the logic of these pictures away. In her recent work, currently on display at Sikkema Jenkins, Lawson displaces her canny vision from Brooklyn to places she has traveled to far and wide across the black diaspora—Swaziland, Soweto, South Carolina, Jamaica, Ethiopia, and Haiti.
Upon entry to the gallery, we see two photographs counter-posed: an appropriated landscape image of a Jamaican jungle entitled The Bush (2013) and an interior bedroom scene, Brother and Sister Soweto (2017), which pictures a South African man and a young toddler whose face shyly hides behind his legs. At another point in the show, we come across a blurred abstraction of a faraway galaxy, Messier 81, Return of the Dove (2018) with a tiny polaroid snapshot of a group of black youth seated on a church pew embedded in it. It is obvious the artist scanned the photograph from a publication because there is a deep vertical fold that conjoins both sides of the picture. The very question as to whether it is from Lawson’s personal collection is left open, grounding the work in her conceptual investigation of the line between mythos and black self-possession. In other words, the combination of appropriated images of space and place—with staged portraits and found images, from the bush to the cosmos—is Lawson’s dare to imagine a contemporary photographic portrait of a disjointed and fragmented black diaspora one that constellates mythology, social documents, personal family histories, and constructed scenes, without artificial grandeur yet abundant with sublimity.
Take Seagulls in Kitchen (2017), which features a young man with his arms wrapped around a woman while standing on outdated vinyl kitchen floor. The two embrace for the camera, in front of a powder blue cinderblock wall. The woman’s large hoop earrings, bare stomach, and electric blue toenails contrast with the acid gray jeans and impeccably white Jordan sneakers of the man behind her. But what emerges here is the manner in which Lawson includes every seemingly inconsequential thing for our scrutiny in the picture. Behind the pair, we see a stack of unopened coffee cups as well as dried black-eyed peas, Spaghetti-O’s, and a can of a PAM spray sitting on a shelf beneath a toaster oven. Oddities in this space still manage to compromise our sense of certainty that this is indeed someone’s home, despite cheery accents of intimacy that only a home could provide, like frilly curtains and a pair of gilded birds on the wall. Atop a dingy refrigerator facing the two, we see a box of examination gloves and a hefty stack of Styrofoam carryout trays. In an attempt to piece together a narrative, I learned that the apparent familiarity which makes the two appear as a couple is a farce. In fact, her gallerist notes that they are strangers, gathered together in a kitchen space after agreeing to pose at the artist’s request.
Her settings of choice are almost always intimate spaces of the home such as living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms but it is her framing of her subjects in these settings which pushes them from “portraits” to photographic utterances about interiority and refusal.1 In six out of these ten new photographs, she places her subjects at the juncture where two conjoined walls meet; in other words, in corners. At other times, the camera lurks just at the entrance to a room, or she fixes her camera at a slightly downward angle, so that the picture allows us to stare directly down at her models. One effect of this camera positioning is that Lawson’s field of vision frames her encounters with the persons and things without any kind of compositional hierarchy, so that there is always some subterranean information to process. Each scene is a world that at once reveals and calls itself into question.
Like Seagulls, Lawson took Barbara and Mother (2017) in Charleston, South Carolina. In it we see a mature woman lifting her maxi-dress to expose a prosthetic leg. Her younger daughter stands behind her in a one-piece swimsuit. Their bent arms, hands resting at their hips, and exposed thighs all echo each other, emphasizing their genetic bond. Their space is a chaotic room, littered with evidence of an absent teenage boy whose presence fills the room in the form of a Baptist Hill Middle High School award placard, and several video game controllers and stacks of discs, yet the console is nowhere to be found. But we also see scattered about, a toothbrush, canvas belts, Bronner’s Brothers “Pump It Up” hair spritz, and synthetic flowers complete with store tags. It’s like we’re in a living room that’s lived in like a bedroom because the space is just as dizzying and fragmented as the conditions of possibility in which Lawson took this portrait. And this is where things get exciting. As much as Lawson’s work is celebrated for the quiet dignity of representing ordinary working-class black folks, I’m attracted to her practice because her photographs teem with anxiety about narrative and fragmentation. In this way Lawson prompts us not only to look at worlds she imagined with those who lived them, but asks us to do so with a necessary skepticism about representation itself.
- It is worth noting that as one would do in one’s own home, Lawson leaves healing crystals in the corners of the gallery to facilitate good energies.
ContributorJessica Bell Brown
JESSICA BELL BROWN is an art historian and writer based in Harlem.