CHICAGO — Deana Lawson’s photographs thwart easy notions of symmetry. In her latest solo exhibition, the first installment of the new Ruttenberg Contemporary Photography Series at the Art Institute of Chicago, Lawson addresses issues of identity in global black culture through portraits of strangers she’s encountered across the world. In these glowing images, black people as far as the Congo and as near as Brooklyn are presented as bold individuals. The symmetries Lawson tackles are multifold, ranging from visual to metaphorical: she often uses architectural interiors to bisect or frame defiantly unruly compositions; in her group shots, radial symmetries are apparent, but do little to bring order to the energy coursing out. This visual teasing makes clear the asymmetries — social, racial, economic — that are at the heart of this complicated, powerful work.
Lawson’s subjects are shown defiant, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the strangeness of their surroundings. They adopt highly stylized poses that alternately nod to art history and popular culture. In “Otisha, Kingston, Jamaica” (2013), a nude woman with a Grace Jones coif leans against a white upholstered sofa, the long lines of her body as precise as a compass point. The rest of the room feels as anachronistic as her haircut: a white tiger graces the rug, chintz drapes are topped with a scalloped valance, leather furniture abounds. The white couch is hemmed in by two leather chairs, their glossy arms serving as a counterpoint to the sheen of Otisha’s limbs. The precise, sharp lines of subject and setting give the image an odd yet emphatic balance; Otisha is like a modern-day Olympia who, rather than reclining, rests in side-plank pose, ready to move — or pounce — at a moment’s notice.
A parallel figure is found in “Nikki’s Kitchen, Detroit, Michigan” (2015). The titular figure, wearing a leopard cat-suit slipped coyly off her shoulders, strikes a feline pose atop a wooden chair. The wallpaper job is only half done, power outlets lack covers, and splinters jut out of the wood trim, yet Nikki is all style, as evidenced by her glossy mushroom cut and glinting golden hoops. The structure and careful precision of Nikki’s look belie the unfinished appearance of her surroundings, but Lawson cleverly frames her subject within the interior to formal effect. Nikki is positioned at the corner of the room, where the lines split the image neatly in two. It’s a conceit Lawson often returns to, giving additional drama to these beautifully styled images. Whether they’re impoverished, outdated, or disheveled, the settings are shown to be as individuated as the human subjects that inhabit them.
As we continue around the world, Lawson toys with art historical tropes by placing black people in biblical narratives typically presented, in the West, as uniformly white. “Mama Goma, Gemena, DR Congo” (2014) depicts a woman standing before another interior corner; everything in the room, from furniture to textiles and plants, seems to point to her. She wears a Cinderella-blue strapless satin gown with a large circle cut out to accentuate the swell of her pregnant belly. She’s not a stereotypical Madonna — no iconic blonde ringlets, matronly robe, or beatific smile to be found — yet a Madonna she is. She stands regally, arms outstretched as if proffering a blessing; the bareness of her feet accentuates her projected holiness.
Biblical references continue in “The Garden, Gemena, DR Congo” (2014), which features a nude man and woman amid tall weeds and plant life. This Adam and Eve recall Cranach’s depictions of the pair, particularly the paintings that set the couple in a dark environment. Lawson’s couple is brightly lit within the surrounding roughage, yet the background is rendered opaque by an all-encompassing shadow, perhaps an allusion to the colonial idea of Africa as the heart of darkness. The image of nude Africans shrouded by jungle simultaneously references this stereotype and, with a gorgeous display of tenderness between the pair, denies it. “The Garden” presents a picture of intimacy that asks for nothing from the viewer. Whereas a lesser photographer might have been tempted to create a moralizing image, Lawson creates ambiguity by hinting at many reads, rather than choosing one.
I could dedicate space to every last one of these portraits. From the hierarchical poses of the women in the New Orleans photo and the Haitian woman wielding a severed pig head above her own to the couple in Brooklyn who sit surrounded by cardboard boxes and a grocery cart full of clothes, yet mostly nude, each is more intriguing and provocative than the last. Lawson’s crowd shots, however, require particular attention for the ways they intersect with current issues of race, and how black people are perceived in public in the US.
The three photographs of crowds, as indicated in their titles, show religious gatherings in Haiti and a street party for jouvert, the Caribbean celebration of the start of carnival in Brooklyn. The cultural affinities between these images are apparent in the linking of Caribbean traditions across geographical lines. Yet without the titles, there’s an ambiguity in these works as leading as the suggestion of darkness in “The Garden.” In one of the Haiti images — the only black-and-white photograph in the exhibition — the attending crowd seems to exclusively wear white, heightening the drama and religious tone of the work. A woman at the group’s center looks dazed and is covered with blood, portending violence. The title, “Danto Sacrifice, Port-au-Prince, Haiti” (2012), refers to a Haitian Vodou spirit whose favored sacrificial animal is a black pig, but without that knowledge the image could be read in a number of different ways, suggesting the woman as a victim of the crowd, or aided by the crowd, and so forth.
In the other group shots the attendees wear street clothes. Though these images are celebratory and devout, without context they’re suggestive in highly subjective ways. This is where Lawson’s play on perception takes its biggest risks. The posed portraits are full of signifiers which, though they’re often anachronistic or atypical, clearly present distinct individuals. The group shots, buzzing with energy and lacking the bounds of a room, are harder to read. Responses, therefore, could range from open-minded to fearful, depending on the beliefs of the observer. The viewer might withhold discrimination when faced with an image rather than the actual crowd, yet this fraught potential is magnified when considered in light of the media images that have dominated the US following the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless others, and the events that have followed. The rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter” calls attention to the fact that there are still those who see black lives as without value, who would look at Lawson’s pictures and see a crowd to be feared, comprised of individuals to be controlled.
Lawson’s powerful images call attention to these discrepancies in perception by presenting images that tease at yet defy assumption. She extrapolates Black Lives Matter into a visual argument at a global scale. Too often, the idea of overcoming difference hinges on empathy, an ability to see oneself in the other. These images forestall easy empathy. They depict lives remarkable for their distinctions, while demanding respect for their subjects.
Deana Lawson: Ruttenberg Contemporary Photography Series continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue) through January 10, 2016.