On ViewMoMA PS1
April 14 – September 5, 2022
Long Island City
There’s a way things seem to glow in Deana Lawson’s most recent solo exhibition at MoMA PS1. Crystals and gems tucked away in gallery corners glint with a quiet allure. Frames made from mirrors catch the light and refract it into glowing portals, enshrining Lawson’s photographs and holding us in rapt attention. Underfoot, a rich maroon carpet coats the gallery floors in a luxuriant, sensuous luster. But most luminous are the people that occupy Lawson’s frames: the unimpeachable shine of their skin enlivened by Lawson’s flash; their jewelry and adornment, which drips with abundant glimmer; the glow of their affect. They seem to occupy worlds born of the energy of their own light, which simultaneously withholds and beckons our regard.
The exhibition at MoMA PS1—the second destination of a traveling exhibition whose other venues include the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta—is Lawson’s first museum survey exhibition. It is a dazzling compendium of Lawson’s work from the past eighteen years. Though the exhibition includes assemblage and found photography, the principal focus is Lawson’s portraits, images that are intensely intimate yet too unflinchingly direct for me to think of them as vulnerable.
These fulsomely textured, staged photographs are built out of collaborative encounters between the artist and people from across the African diaspora whom Lawson captures for the most part in domestic interiors. Living rooms and kitchens are transfigured into theatrical environments of pomp and play where sitters are posed as if in tableaux vivants. Lawson also fashions a similar drama in outdoor settings, from sun-soaked verdant woodlands to thick urban midnight.
Whether indoors or outdoors, what runs throughout these images is the candor of presence that these sitters bring to bear on their spaces: each setting seems to be uniquely of and for the person inhabiting it. They demand from us what Tina M. Campt might call hapticity, or “the labor of feeling across difference and precarity; the effort of feeling implicated or affected in ways that create restorative intimacy.”1 Yes, Lawson’s images demand work. While her lens is full of the tenderness of private encounters, the naked intimacy that they register is disarmingly frank. It comes to us directly, its presence engorged by the monumental scale of Lawson’s photos, which do not allow us to back down, which refuse passive spectatorship. The images and the metaphorical stages on which they are set are alight with this discomfiting closeness. Wherever we encounter Lawson’s subjects, their irreducible glow—that auratic flicker of luminosity that I find definitive of Lawson’s work—touches their environment.
The shimmer in Lawson’s work is most visible in the peculiar and maladjusted details in her images, the momentary flashes of the uncanny that stand at the edge of the surreal and the chimeric. Though Lawson’s photographs are born out of intense precision and orchestrated creative vision, they also delight in the whimsy of accident, the magic of syncopated, misaligned moments that somehow make the image complete. I stand in front of Vera, Lateral Puncture (2020), transfixed by a chemical emulsion that cuts across the photograph like a lightning bolt, an electric current that splits Vera’s face in two. On the other side of the gallery, in Axis (2018), three nude Black women are positioned in meticulous formation, performing a row of splits as they look directly at Lawson’s camera. I am arrested by the image’s punctilious choreography, but even more so, by its wayward misalignments: the frenzied and slanted placement of the not-quite-flat rug, the closed eyes of the woman in the center. It is in these strange and imperfect eccentricities where we sense that things are just as they are meant to be. We feel the configuration of everything at a specific moment that coalesces in the frame. In these elusive and illusory slivers of chance, the specter of something viscerally cosmic is inexorably felt.
This cosmic weight is furtively embedded in the folds of the exhibition layout. There is an almost telepathic communication between the photographs achieved through careful juxtaposition. Danto Sacrifice (2012), which depicts a ritual in Haiti, stands across from Jouvert, Flatbush, Brooklyn (2013), an image of a carnival celebration in Brooklyn. In the space between these works, we stand before an alchemic activation of diasporic relation. These entanglements also seep through the corners of Lawson’s photographic assemblages, sprawling clusters of found images accumulated over time and T-pinned to the wall to form a dizzying montage. “Assemblage,” an ongoing project begun in 2010, is gathered from a range of personal, historical, public, and private sources; the found photographs spill out like a constellation of memory. In the galleries at MoMA PS1, it is placed next to Altar (2010), which pictures a flock of objects—beads, figurines, and other ephemera—arranged on a table in perfect disarray. Paired together, “Assemblage” and Altar, give form to a sort of chiasmus of commemorative experience: one assembles pictures, and the other pictures assemblage. Woven together in space time, Lawson’s photographs teach us to live in the texture of assemblage, to see rhizomatically, to take in the alchemy that lies within and between the people and things that she captures.
Tina M. Campt, “The Visual Frequency of Black Life,” Social Text Vol. 37, No. 3 (2019), p. 42.