If I have my chronology correct, first poetry died, then the novel, then painting, and, most recently, photography is said to have gulped the dust.
Those deaths are academia’s version of fake news, a way to control and manipulate the narrative. The domain of photography is as porous as that of painting and sculpture, and any attempt to essentialize it and return it to an era when aesthetic perfection was the rule, is doomed to fail.
A current exhibition, Deana Lawson, Judy Linn3, Paul Mpagi Sepuya at Sikkema Jenkins (January 13 – February 18, 2017) is an excellent example of what I mean by photography’s unruly capaciousness.
Other than their use of a camera, these photographers appear to have little in common, which I think is a good thing. Paul Mpagi Sepuya is a studio photographer whose work has expanded beyond traditional portraits to include photographs of photographs. In “Enoch, March 24, 2014” (2014), Sepuya has overlaid a photograph of a camera on a tripod, presumably in his studio, with other photos depicting gray bed covering, a headshot, and other details. The industrial grey bed covering — which in some images appears discolored — read as wrinkled and sagging skin, folds of flesh. They are disquieting, but it is hard to nail it down the feelings they evoke further than that. In the studio shot anchored by the camera and tripod, a partially peeled orange lies on the floor, an incongruous detail that invites you to look more closely at every part of the photograph.
In “Marques April 11” (2013), the close-up view is apt to take a few second to apprehend: it is a sidelong view of a man’s shoulder, including part of his armpit and nipple. The view of the male body, a recurring subject in these works, is both representational and abstract.
Even though we seem to be awash in images, Sepuya and the other two photographers in this exhibition present us with ways to challenge expectations. More importantly, at least to me, is that they give us something to think about and reflect upon. However perfect their works, they are not interested in the aesthetics of flawless beauty, pristinely presented.
Judy Linn seems always to be at the right place at the right time. I get the feeling that she does not take photographs, but that she has an acute, unerring eye for finding them. In the black-and-white “Cineplex” (2005), the blank stand— or is it a barrier? — in the lobby of a movie theater is a rectangle within a rectangle, something we have seen before. The one detail that changes this formal arrangement is some graffiti on the barrier’s gray cloth delineating two eyes, a nose and a smiling mouth. There is no contour line enclosing the head, which is ridiculous, if you think about. Not only is there no line describing the head, there is also no body.
Linn has a sense of the absurd as well as its ubiquity: a house tilted on its foundation, though there is no apparent reason why this happened; a snowy landscape with a mountain range in the distance painted on the garage door of a bland suburban house; a hardy tree branch piercing an empty beer can.
The absurd, however, is not something she looks for. She is open to many possibilities in her work. In “Claire” (1997), Linn has photographed a baby looking up at whomever is cradling her on her lap. We sit where Linn sits, on the other side of a diner table, where the hooded baby’s head is only partially visible. Just above the center of the photograph, the baby’s one unobscured eye stares up at what we cannot see, evoking vulnerability and an eerie otherness.
It is Linn’s sensitivity to otherness — to the fact that we can never really name what we see, contrary to what Bible says about Adam naming the animals, and therefore possessing them — that animates her work. What lifts her photographs into another territory is that she has no program about this. There is no signature style. She finds otherness where she encounters it, which is no small thing. If you are aware of her book Patti Smith 1969–1976 (2011), you know that is not all she does.
I was bowled over when I first saw Deana Lawson’s work in her exhibition, Deana Lawson: Mother Tongue, at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago (February 28th – April 5th 2014) and have been looking forward to seeing more. In this exhibition she includes photos from three different bodies of work. One of the things that struck me about Lawson’s imagery when I first saw it is the obvious rapport she has with her subjects. In “Cortez” (2016), we see a brown-skinned, bare-chested young man, who is lying on the roof of his car, propped up on one elbow, staring into the camera. He is wearing camouflage pants and plaid underwear, which rises above the pants. His chest is covered with tattoos, along with his left shoulder and part of his upper right arm. There are odd details: the car doors and trunk are open, and a striped tie hangs from the mirror. Like Sepuya and Linn. Lawson invites us to look at everything, not just the figure on the roof. A striking portrait in which the contextual circumstances (or story) are never revealed, “Cortez” is also a study in color relationships: brown skin; off-white car; pale gray sky; camouflage pattern; green grass; and dark brown tree trunk.
You do not have to know the grief that has unfolded before “Funereal Wallpaper” (2013), which is a faded, innocuous view of a body water, a rocky shore, and young (or stunted) fir trees in the foreground. How this scene is supposed to help someone process grief is beyond my comprehension.
In the last work, “Mohawk Correctional Facility” (appropriated 2013), Lawson moves in an unexpected direction. The work consists of forty-six snapshots lined edge to edge on two adjacent walls. According to the gallery press release:
“Mohawk Correctional Facility: Jasmine & Family” (2013) is a series of photos depicting the artist’s cousin, Jasmine, with her partner Eric and their children taken inside the Mohawk Correctional Facility in upstate New York over a period of three years. Covering the period during which Eric was incarcerated, the images were taken by prison officials and document multiple trips Jasmine and her family made together.
At a time when the incarcerated are often demonized for political gain, Lawson’s appropriated photographs show another side to the prisoners’ story. The fact that the photographs were taken by prison officials reveals another side of the jailers.
It is often been said — especially in this age of mass-media overload — that we have seen everything. As these photographs prove, that is not nearly the case.
Deana Lawson, Judy Linn, Paul Mpagi Sepuya continues at Sikkema Jenkins (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 18.