Deborah Jack uses lens-based media to unravel the presumed discreteness of the racialized and gendered body from its environment. Born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, she was raised on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, which features prominently in her work. Its physical environment, and the engagement of Black women with it, produce a dynamic repository for the modern African diasporic histories excluded from the archive because of slavery and colonialism. The 2015 photograph “history on our skin, #4” emblematizes Jack’s insistence on photography’s capacity to express stories held in the environment rather than the archive. The images focuses in on the face of a young Black woman, who tips her head back to look straight up. A barely legible image of flamboyant blooms and feathery leaves is projected onto the apple of her cheek and follows the line of her jaw down her neck, casting a kaleidoscope of flaming orange-red and bright green countered by twilight purples and noon-sky blue. The camera is set slightly askew from the sitter, coyly nudging the photograph away from the conventions of portraiture and toward the play of light and shadow that underscores the tiny scars on the sitter’s chin near the center of the composition. Jack claims histories in this image that traverse the scale of the body and the landscape.

The extensive body of work in the retrospective Deborah Jack: 20 Years at Pen + Brush provides an opportunity to follow Jack’s consistent manipulation of scale. By scale, I certainly mean the size of artworks in the gallery, which range from projection slides housed in light boxes to installations that fill an entire room. But the interwoven scales of body, island, and ocean are also materials Jack deploys to manipulate space and time. Scale emerges as a formal means of placing the body into various relations with an environment that dwarfs the individual with its monumentality, or manifests as minuscule things that nearly escape notice.   

Installation view of intertidal imaginaries, untitled 1, Land 02, and foremothers in Deborah Jack: 20 Years at Pen + Brush, New York

The high-ceilinged space of Pen + Brush provides few opportunities for any individual work to catch the eye. The rectangular gallery is framed by a southern wall of glass and an exposed brick wall on the northern end. The majority of Jack’s photographic and video works are installed against the walls and in two alcoves at the rear of the space, creating a subtly cruciform plan and leaving a void in the middle of the gallery. It is peculiar to feel Jack’s work swallowed by the space because her photographic prints are often large or serial, so that they command attention individually or collectively. Her multi-channel videos are frequently exhibited as immense installations that use multiple screens or projection onto adjoining walls. 

The ground-floor installation attempts to capture these integral plays on scale and dimension through a salon-style hanging. By breaking with a more traditional gallery installation, Deborah Jack: 20 Years suggests a domestic interior, perhaps to highlight Jack’s familial lineage evoked in a number of early works. Next to the exhibition text is “little girl lost” (2002), an archival print of a child (perhaps Jack herself) mounted on lined paper. Hand-written phrases wonder about how a paternal grandmother she never knew may have helped her know her own father. Diagonally across the aisle, an image of the same matriarch is revealed from beneath a layer of salt in five shadow boxes that comprise foremothers (2002). United by the dystopian nuclear haze of their orange hue, two landscape photographs flank these lineal reflections; one from the more recent intertidal imaginaries series (2021-) is followed by the earlier Land 02 (2002). These groupings elucidate Jack’s use of photography to treat both the figure and land as subjects, but the installation leaves this viewer adrift, searching for ground amid one low sound pulsating at the edges of audibility, and another of crashing waves that washes over the space.

Where the installation falters, the conceptual rigor and formal finesse of Jack’s work holds. This propulsive rumble is a recording of the Rossby Whistle — a wave that pushes across the Caribbean seafloor, emitting a frequency registered through oscillations in the Earth’s gravitational field. The sound belongs to the 2018 video Drawn by water: Sea Drawings in three acts, Act One: wait/weight on the water. The video picks up the broader motifs of the sea and the hurricane in Jack’s oeuvre. Her motifs connect nature’s destructive potential to the horror of the middle passage and also posit these natural disasters as a means of lamentation and remembrance. Jack reinforces the video’s postcolonial critique with shoreline footage, most from Scheveningen in the Netherlands, not from St. Maarten.

Installation view of Drawn by water: Sea Drawings in three acts, Act One: wait/weight on the water and “bounty II” in Deborah Jack: 20 Years at Pen + Brush, New York

The sound of breaking waves that permeates the main gallery is part of the site-specific SHORE, discovered when one descends to the lower level. The floor is covered with pristine white rock salt. Amid an ambient soundtrack of creaking wood and lapping water, two screens project sepia-toned footage of a ship’s mast, a secluded cove, a boat’s wake (in an inverted shot), and a rocky outcropping. A reflecting pool spans the screens and multiplies the footage above. A second projection worms its way across the back walls, fragmenting footage of a hurricane’s swirling eye shaded an ultramarine blue. This reinstallation of a 2004 work is a spectacular highlight. The dim glow of the projections in a windowless basement gallery creates a meditative space; it invites the viewer to be enveloped by the sound of waves and touch the pebbles of salt that form unstable hills on the floor. 

The larger-than-life SHORE affords the viewer a new perspective on the rest of the exhibition when one climbs the stairs — a new sense of the scale of things, like the play between monument and miniature in “bounty II,” a projection slide that depicts a mountain of salt on the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire. Deborah Jack’s work is varied in its aesthetics, media, and subjects, but always commands attentive looking, lest you be caught by a wave unaware.

Deborah Jack: 20 Years continues at Pen + Brush (29 East 22nd Street, Manhattan) through February 19.

C.C. McKee is an Assistant Professor of Modern Art at Bryn Mawr College. Their research focuses on the intersections of art, colonialism, and natural science in the modern Atlantic World (c. 1750–1950)...