LaToya Ruby Frazier’s elegiac installation at the Brooklyn Museum is entering its final week, and if you haven’t already, it’s time to make the acquaintance of this dauntless artist.
Frazier is a photographer who cannot forget who she is or where she comes from. Her images are indelible family portraits, unsparing in the narrative of decay that’s seared across the bodies of her elders and the cityscape of her hometown, Braddock, Pennsylvania.
For this exhibition, LaToya Ruby Frazier: A Haunted Capital, which perfectly fills a long, single gallery of the museum, Frazier has covered the entrance walls on either end with site-specific wallpaper, a floor-to-ceiling grid incorporating her own photos, family snapshots and vintage images of steel mills and their workers. On the flanking walls, she has hung her framed gelatin silver photographs singly and in pairs, series and four-part grids.
The wallpaper, over which Frazier has mounted photos and other objects, anchors the installation in a public/private nexus that sets the artist’s work inside an arc of American history that continues to unfold — manifested most recently and conspicuously in the bankruptcy of Detroit.
Braddock is a Rust Belt town near Pittsburgh that economically imploded as the steel industry sought out cheaper labor overseas. Despite recent efforts at revitalization, it is a city that represents a vanished America of decent working class jobs and egalitarian upward mobility. Its further decimation by redlining and white flight — the population is barely a sixth of what it was in the 1980s — has strapped its remaining townsfolk with a legacy of impoverishment and chronic illness.
Frazier suffers from lupus; her grandmother died from pancreatic cancer and her mother is afflicted with both cancer and an undiagnosed neurological disorder. The major local hospital was closed in 2010 and demolished; the campaign to stop the closure became the subject of Frazier’s photo series, Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save Our Community Hospital).
There are images from that campaign here, as well as photos of the building’s destruction. There are also intimate portraits of Frazier’s grandparents when they were hospitalized there. But these works carry a tone more fatalist than activist: in A Haunted Capital, the human cost of bureaucratic decision-making is interwoven with moments of quiet joy and glimpses of desolate grandeur.
All of these works are black-and-white, their tonality never indulging in eye-catching contrasts but immersed in shifting clouds of gray, which soften the chiseled realism of the images. Frazier doesn’t back away from the messy and uncomfortable details of her family’s life, but instead bores in on them, monumentalizing everyday clutter through classical compositions and painterly washes of light and shadow.
A key to an artist’s persona can be found in her most extreme images, which, in A Haunted Capital, would be “Grandma Ruby Wiping Gramps” (2003), a photograph that if executed by other hands might be shocking, even cruel.
But Frazier’s depiction of the nightmare that haunts every family member — of being called to assist in the most intimate of bodily functions of a loved one — is suffused with extraordinary compassion.
Gramps lifts himself out of a wheelchair, his hospital gown hiked up, while Grandma Ruby bends over to clean his anus. Caught in motion, Grandma Ruby’s blurred hand obscures her action as well as the cleavage of Gramps’ buttocks, while the contour of her back and head fuses with her husband’s in a single, semicircular unit. The resulting image is that of two persons so deeply connected that they have become one body.
That photograph and the equally compelling “Mom After Surgery” (2009), which shows Frazier’s mother leaning over a sink, her black brazier pulled down to reveal stitches on her right breast and swatches of blackened adhesive from a recently removed bandage, can be hard to take as much for their dispassionate detail as for, paradoxically, the pathos they convey over the wreckage wrought by illness and the dehumanization of the health care machine.
Like a proponent of the New Journalism or an autobiographical performance artist, Frazier makes herself a part of the story — there is a series of self-portraits made during her attacks of lupus — because it would be dishonest not to do so.
Her photographs are objective accounts of a highly subjective point of view, formal distancing conjoined with scorching self-disclosure. You may argue with their political critique, but you’d be hard pressed to dispute their disquieting excavations into the souls of America’s unwanted.
LaToya Ruby Frazier: A Haunted Capital continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through August 11.