Crossing Brooklyn: Deana Lawson

Deana Lawson, Oath, 2013.

Through January 4, the Brooklyn Museum will present a major survey of contemporary Brooklyn art, featuring more than one hundred works from 35 artists. Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond includes work in virtually every medium, including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, installation, video, and performance, linked only by place and by an engagement with the modern world. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be rolling out profiles of artists who appear in the exhibit. You can read the rest here.

The critic Greg Tate wrote that photographer Deana Lawson’s work is about the representation of “social intimacies that defy stereotype and pathology while subtly acknowledging the vitality of lives abandoned by the dominant social order.” In America, a congenitally racist country, the lives abandoned by the dominant social order have overwhelming been African-American lives.

Black selfhood in this country has been forged in a profoundly corporeal dimension, informed in part by lynchings and whippings of yesteryear, by property redlining and gunshots today. This violence is always accompanied by othering; otherness is, in fact, a condition of administering and condoning violence. The otherness of and violence inflicted upon African-Americans has its own history of representation, from lithographs of lynchings to minstrel shows to racist cartoons (and far more).

“The history of America, and the history of photography in America, have both been charged with a certain violence of the black body, whether physically or in representation,” Lawson tells me. “I can never forget that. That’s the baggage that comes along with photography for me, particularly because I’m interested in the black body. It’s always inherently political.”

Even more than that, though, Lawson is an artist-qua-artist, and she brings to her work a gentle intimacy and a fluency between forms that is more informed by aesthetics than politics. “What I’ve chosen as my muse is a political subject, but at the same time my inquiry, my curiosity, my motivations are no different than a painters’,” she says. “I’m in love with form, shape, beauty, color, sensuality, in a two-dimensional image. At the same time I like to play with that [received] history, take charge of it, resist it, not be beholden to it.”

Lawson has six photographs in Crossing Brooklyn, taken in locales as wide-ranging as Jamaica, Haiti, New Orleans, Brooklyn, and Rochester, where the artist is from. The photos are a selection from a larger series that “looks at the body in different landscapes connected to the African diaspora,” Lawson says. A recently-awarded Guggenheim Fellowship allowed Lawson to expand her inquiry worldwide.

Lawson takes large-format portraits that are strikingly intimate, often meticulously composed, and which draw from a range of photographic languages, from the vernacular (e.g. family photo albums) to the formal (e.g. staged scenes with chiaroscuro lighting). The size of Lawson’s photographs has an enveloping effect that counterbalances their intimacy; the viewer is brought into the world of the photograph—shown a tender moment, a disrobed body, a private space—but as a spectator. We are never not looking.

Tying the work together are a “visual sensuality, a deep appreciation of the brown body, and themes of resistance to power, history, even violence,” Lawson says. The work is also united by what Lawson has called the “familial gaze.” The images “come from a sense of social history as well as larger political histories, synthesized into portraiture,” she says. “I’m interested in familial legacy; even though I’m not related to anyone in the photographs, there is still a sense of familial connection. I’m literally thinking of the diaspora, thinking of slaves from West and Central Africa who ended up in Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Brazil, America. There’s a mythological sense of family, a sense of going home.”

Lawson received her M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2004 and is currently a lecturer at Princeton University. In addition to the Brooklyn Museum, her work has been exhibited at the MoMA, PS 1, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, amongst other places, and published in The New Yorker and Time. She grew up in Rochester in a “very large family—there are hundreds of us,” she says. “I think maybe my sense of family and how I look at strangers stems from that clan-like family environment.”

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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