Visual Arts Journal: The Photographs of Deana Lawson – Portals to Possibility

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By Chloé Pingeon

Viewers are invited to do what they want with the show’s footage – to let their imaginations create their own vast and beautiful stories.

Deana Lawson, Hair Advertising, 2005. Pigment printing. Courtesy of the artist; Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. © Deana Lawson

The galleries of the Deana Lawson exhibition (until February 22, 2022, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston), are carpeted with red carpet. The space is warm. Silence. A contrast to the traditional white cubes where visitors are invited to discover the art. Here you are in a whole new space. A space in which the outside world is muted, sidelined, at least a little. Here it’s just Lawson and the audience. This is how she likes it.

Lawson was born in Rochester, NY. Her mother worked for Kodak and her aunt was one of the first black female ophthalmologists. It is understandable that its connection to visual art is multi-layered; his work exhibited at the ICA combines photography, image and heritage. She often focuses on the family photo, emphasizing images of intimacy – of entwined bodies or relaxed people in their homes. It is not always clear whether this closeness is to be seen as a personal drama or whether it is to make a general observation about the black experience. Our interest in contextual information is not the question – maybe even beside the question. Viewers are invited to do what they want with the show’s footage – to let their imaginations create their own vast and beautiful stories.

Five photographs are hung in the first room of the exhibition. My eyes were immediately drawn to a pigmented black image of a red explosion. Nestled in the frame – so as to overlay the visual – is a small photograph of a woman. The piece is called Dana and Sirius B. The explosion is bright and powerful: almost symmetrical, but there are enough imperfections to make it look natural. It’s a star, Sirius B, and it would be invisible to the naked eye, eclipsed by its neighbor, Sirius A. In Lawson’s photograph, Sirius B is radiant. The woman in the superimposed photo is young and smiling; it’s Dana, Lawson’s twin sister. This is one of the only times on the show where Lawson identifies a subject in his photo. The frame of the room is mirrored so that if you look at it from the right angle, you see yourself looking back.

Across the room hangs Girls with oiled faces, an image of young black twins in matching dresses, sitting on a sofa and looking at the camera, their expressions dull. There is no context given for this photograph. Perhaps this piece is a reflection of Lawson’s childhood as a twin. Maybe not. At the entrance of this same gallery hangs Hair Advertising. In this photo, a beautiful young woman is shyly staring at the camera. This is a pic of a photo: A photo from an advertisement Lawson saw outside a barber shop in Rochester. At the ICA, she recycles the image, presumably to satire the beauty standards of white society for black women.

Deana Lawson, Black Gold (“The Earth turns into gold, in the hands of the wise”, Rumi), 2021. Pigment print with integrated hologram. Courtesy of the artist; Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. © Deana Lawson

The exhibit is made up of eight rooms and the photographs are mostly portraits, arranged chronologically to document Lawson’s 20 years of growing confidence. Images grow larger and more self-aware over time. The second room presents seven selected images. In the corner is an assemblage of drugstore photographs. These types of arrangements often reappear throughout the exhibition, intentionally placed in the most marginalized spaces of the gallery. Each picture tells its own story so that together the network of collage is so complex that it is impossible to comprehend everything. It’s an act of reclaiming the complications of black identity, with an eye on the ubiquitous (and oppressive?) Power of media and photography.

The same challenge arises when Lawson’s photographs enlarge. They become overwhelming, the obvious attention to detail in the postures and expressions of their subjects juxtaposed to a shallow depth of field. The result is a paradox; viewers receive too much and too little information. Where there are windows or doors in Lawson’s photographs, they are obscured by drapes or curtains. The effect is to suggest that, for now, the outside world is excluded. In the corners of some galleries there are sometimes crystals, placed to strategically frame the photographs. These stones are works of art in their own right, but they also transform the space into a setting that includes the spectators.

The heart of the exhibition is in the fifth room. Here on a wall hangs a series of photographs that Lawson did not take. The piece is called Mohawk Correctional Institution: Jazmin and his family. It is made up of a collection of family portraits which show a man, a woman and a child in various poses. They are still standing against a cement wall painted blue and yellow. There is a painted plant in the lower corner of the wall, perhaps to suggest the outside world, albeit through primary colors and elemental strokes that seem far from natural. These are photographs of Lawson’s cousin, Jazmin, and his partner Erik; they were taken to the prison visitation center where Erik was being held. The compilation is dedicated to reality: real years, a real family and a real space inside the prison. Through the gallery hangs irony The garden. Here, a naked couple is pictured surrounded by greenery. The presence of nature makes a sardonic comment on the photos of being locked up in prison. Here Lawson juxtaposes freedom with captivity, American myth and reality.

Deana Lawson, Nation, 2018. Pigment print and pasted photograph. Courtesy of the artist; Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. © Deana Lawson

In the last rooms of the exhibition, the silence of the previous galleries is replaced by the sound of music. Ghanaian and Togolese women can be heard singing an a cappella choral arrangement via audio from a 12-minute video loop in the last room of the exhibition. The singing gets louder as you move through the galleries and find that the photographs on display increase in size. Additionally, the facial expressions and humanity of Lawson’s subjects become more and more moving as you progress. In the sixth room, where the sound is present but remains distant, a particular image caught my attention. It’s titled Portal, and it’s another photo with no people. This is a close up of part of a battered sofa covered in brown leather. There is a gaping tear in the fabric. The allusion to poverty is clear, but so is Lawson’s claim that, by paying attention, we imagine possibilities for transformation in this jagged empty space.


Chloe Pingeon is a rising student at Boston College studying Film and Journalism. She writes regularly for the Articles and Arts section of the Boston College Independent Student Journal. Heights, and also wrote for the culture section of Lithium charger. She is currently a Creative Development Intern at Foundation Films.

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