BY Ian Bourland in Reviews | 22 MAR 17
Featured in
Issue 186

Deana Lawson, Judy Linn, Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, USA

BY Ian Bourland in Reviews | 22 MAR 17

Someday, historians will look back on this decade as something of a golden age of black portraiture: in terms of its theoretical complexity, richness of production and engagement with pressing issues in political life. When they do, Deana Lawson’s large colour pigment prints will be front and centre. It seems fitting, then, that her Living Room, Brownsville, Brooklyn (2015) is the first work we encounter in this group show. Its title invokes a predominantly black neighbourhood, located on the fringes of the gentrification wave that has swept the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights neighbourhoods of Brooklyn, and the image captures a small apartment in a state of seeming transience: halogen lamp slightly askance, piles of clothes dotting the floor, a grommeted curtain hastily taped to the wall. The two figures at the centre of the room – a seated, shirtless man and a nude woman embracing him from behind – anchor the shot, staring intently into the lens.

Judy Linn, Tilted House, 2002, digital print, 61 x 79 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, USA

The quiet figuration and tones of muted yellow in Living Room, Brownsville, Brooklyn recall another Lawson photograph, Blinky and Tony (2009). That one – not on display here – was shot in the artist’s home and also highlights everyday intimacy rooted spatially in the rapidly changing, historically black neighbourhoods of New York. It circulated widely when Dev Hynes used it for the cover of his 2016 album Freetown Sound – a reminder of Lawson’s ongoing engagement with larger questions of sexuality, location and power. What’s striking is Lawson’s capacity to navigate an ambivalent space between the typical genres of black representation (especially in film and popular media) that errs towards shoring-up rote archetypes. Lawson lets her subjects be. While these are not beautifying images per se, they are beautifully realized, their overall composition yielding small and telling details. Cortez (2016), for instance, captures a man in repose on his elegant white car. There are plenty of signifiers to be read here, but the depth of field tugs towards his hand, which clutches a small burning cigar, or the tree-shaped air-freshener that hangs from the car’s rearview mirror.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Studio, March 2 (part 1), 2014, archival pigment print, 61 x 46 cm. Courtesy: the artist and DOCUMENT gallery, Chicago

Lawson’s images are engrossing to the extent they almost overwhelm Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s conceptually driven, less chromatic compositions. Both Lawson and Sepuya share an interest in overarching questions of technical procedure and art history; both are acutely aware of the complexity of their subjects and the potentially reductive capacity of the photographic medium. Sepuya’s contributions are primarily ‘studies’ that highlight his analogue process of layering large-scale photographs, models and props in a studio setting, and reflecting them in a mirror to create a unified picture plane. As a metaphor for the fragmented and sedimentary nature of selfhood, or as an excavation into the origins of portraiture, there is much to consider here; but the rigorous disruptions of these works would have been brought into clearer relief if they had been contrasted with Sepuya’s more conventional photographs, which were not included in the show. Nonetheless, a table occupies the centre of the gallery – Some Recent Pictures/a journal (Volumes 2 and 3, December 21, 2016) – like a physicalized computer desktop, with overlaid and partial images, notes and fragments of text, from Truman Capote to Bruce Nugent. Indicating process behind process, it shows the deep armature underlying Sepuya’s deceptively polished images.

The reasons for including four decades’ worth of work by Judy Linn here is, alas, unclear. They are fine, mostly black and white photographs of subjects ranging from Hilton Als to the Villa Savoye to a small dog. Compared to Lawson’s serial display of ‘appropriated’ pictures of her cousin’s visits to see her prison inmate partner (Mohawk Correctional Facility, 2013) – a bittersweet index of lost time – Linn’s pictures seem out of place, holdovers from a part of the art world that may be in its gloaming, but carries on as nostalgia.

Lead image: Deana Lawson, Cortez, 2016, pigment print, 1 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago and Annka Kultys Gallery, London

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).