Shotgun Review

Deana Lawson

By crystal am nelson May 16, 2011

Situated between documentary and appropriation, tableau and archive, Deana Lawson’s West Coast debut of eight large-scale works (re)inserts black subjectivity into the public imagination. She works collaboratively with each subject, offering them agency to determine the mise-en-scène and sometimes the final image. For example, Barbara, 1980s (2009), an acquired portrait, shows a beautiful young woman in the company of two handsome men. Barbara preferred her personal photo to Lawson’s photos of her as an aging entertainer. The still-beautiful Barbara felt the new photographs showed “all the things [she] had gone through” since her heyday—baggage she did not want on exhibit. This exchange hints at Lawson’s desire to empower her subjects to define their beauty and how they share it with the world. In The Beginning (2008), the female subject chose the exact moment she gives birth, while in Daughter (2007), a mother chose the lighter skin tones of her two biracial daughters, one standing nude except for a body stocking.

Lawson also tacitly reflects on the coercive power of black female stereotypes, such as in Roxie and Raquel (2010), a photo of twin sisters whose contrasting attire and expressions reveal their different personalities as well as how they may have internalized these stereotypes. One, dressed in lamé and stilettos, looks at the camera seductively; the other, dressed more modestly, looks at the camera subtly annoyed. Black feminists might characterize them as the hypersexual Jezebel and the aggressive Sapphire. Yet herein lies the image’s sublimity; Roxie and Raquel, in their twin-ness, not only confirm the non-specificity of racial/gender stereotypes, but also illustrate the power of owning them.

Roxie and Raquel, 2010; C-print. Courtesy of the Artist and Baer Ridgway Exhibitions, San Francisco.

Assemblage (2010), the show’s most provocative work, is a meticulous gathering of four-by-six-inch glossy photographs pulled from a variety of sources. The diminutive pictures force the viewer to step closer to identify the content. In doing so, the viewer will find everything from a young Eddie Murphy to a freezer full of decapitated heads of black men, from daguerreotypes to a mug shot of Divine Brown. This vast array of subject matter simultaneously suggests a disturbing obsession and the frightening possibility that the disturbed mind discovered something profound: a map tracing the visual discourse of perennially dysfunctional interracial and intraracial relations. Beyond this, it suggests a need for Lawson to dissect the visual archive and its cultural impact against which she is working, not just in this piece, but in her entire body of work.



Deana Lawson is on view at Baer Ridgway Exhibitions, in San Francisco, through May 28, 2011.



crystal am nelson is an artist, writer, and designer based in San Francisco. She has contributed to and the African American National Biography, a joint project of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University and Oxford University Press, which was published in 2008. 

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