Photographer Deana Lawson’s Corporeal at Light Work

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 11/10/09More articles
Barbara, 1980s, image acquired from Barbara. © Deana Lawson, courtesy of Light Work.
“Deana has been exploring both sides of the street,” writes Robert Blake in Contact Sheet, Light Work’s publication devoted to Corporeal, the new Deana Lawson exhibition now on view. “Her images do not shy away from the tension between the sacred and the profane.”

Light Work’s associate director Mary Goodwin echoes Blake in her gallery wall text when she writes of the Rochester-born, Bed-Stuy-based Lawson’s work that “skin calls forth both the scared and profane….Who are we willing to look at, and why?”

This is a very beautiful exhibition indeed. Although you could hardly find a more classic staple of Western visual art than the white female nude, Lawson’s images of nude African American women and men seem remarkably fresh.

There is a great deal of skin in Lawson’s her new exhibition, Corporeal – both in the 15 large format pigmented inkjet color prints on the wall and in the additional images in the accompanying catalogue. In many of these images, her subjects have posed nude or partially nude, though some of the strongest and most gripping of the images don’t involve nudity at all. “The Beginning” records an infant’s first moments, its own tiny, reaching fist mirrored in the doctor’s blue-gloved hand across the chest and presumably a father’s hand soothing the mother’s forehead. “The Reception” depicts a newly-wed, middle-aged, interracial couple and has a faintly disturbing edge; though his arm’s around her waist, he looks unsteady – a little drunk maybe – his hands rough, and she looks frail, the worse for wear, as if she might be ill.

And while the setting in some of these photographs is quite spare, it’s evident the prints need to be quite large. Otherwise you would miss details that form narratives of the lives of these subjects. These range from the time-honored practice of posing for a portrait in front of other, previous family snapshots and portraits – besides a good many photos-within-photos here, in one case intriguingly even seen in a mirror, there are also several appropriated images – to the telling objects with which people surround themselves for a bit of grace even in very worn and modest circumstances: stacks of DVDs, elegant damask drapes and snowy eyelet curtains and velvet furniture that redeem even very worn and modest apartments, a tiny plastic statue of the Virgin on a nightstand beneath a magazine photo of Michael Jackson tacked on the wall, the hasty partial paint job in time for Christmas, the decoration that a good manicure or tattoo provide, the collection of Cubist paintings of women’s faces beneath a chandelier with a single working bulb that an aging diva keeps.

That diva – Barbara – sits elegantly, at age 73, surrounded by her art collection, wearing just a shiny black and white jacket. A couple images before you reach this one in the gallery, Lawson has included an enlargement of an old snapshot of Barbara from the 1980s, taken perhaps in a nightclub, at a table between two well-dressed gentlemen. As though echoing the wear and tear we ourselves go through in aging, the photo’s own skin carries a large blotch right in the center, perhaps a wet spot degrading its surface or the telltale sign that another snapshot had been stuck on top of it.

The catalogue carries Lawson’s journal entry about her work with Barbara, relating the day she visited Barbara with the proofs of her photos. Illuminating how fraught with anxiety can be the question of what we see, what we want hidden, what we are nervous about others seeing, that pervades this exhibition, Lawson writes that she went armed with a bottle of wine that both women felt they needed for this encounter. Comically, they wander the neighborhood in search of a corkscrew, bottle in hand, Lawson noting, “I just hoped I didn’t see someone from church.” And Barbara is not so sure she likes these photos at all, which Lawson felt to be “gorgeous in another way” from those of Barbara’s showbiz glory days, because she “didn’t know that life had put into my face all the things that I had gone through.” Finally – you feel she is casting about for a way to make this project work for the young photographer – Barbara asks which image Lawson’s husband liked best, and this is what made it to the gallery wall.

What did not make it to the gallery wall is also what makes this particular issue of Contact Sheet an essential part of experiencing this work and engaging Lawson’s exploration of the seen and the unseen. There are a number of wonderful images in the catalogue – the nude male entitled “Thai” I’d especially like to see in a large print.

But crucially, the catalogue also carries an appropriated image of Syracuse’s Lateisha Green (the transgender woman murdered a year ago, for whom there is an anniversary observance this week), plus a portrait by Lawson of Green’s brother, Mark Cannon, and a journal entry revealing that Lawson had permission to photograph Green’s body during its preparation for home-going in the funeral parlor. Lawson and the family later agreed the funeral home images would never be shown. It may be that not including the catalogue images on the gallery wall is a way of avoiding notoriety for both the exhibition and Green’s family.

Back in the gallery itself, such complexity and care prepares you for what comes immediately after Barbara at 73 – a photograph called simply “Dancer,” of a woman pole-dancing in a bar. With the camera aimed directly between her legs, this is what you would have to call a crotch shot. If this phrase sits uneasily, then you must see this show. By the time you get to “Dancer,” that vivid splash of color – her costume is electric blue, green, purple – has become a sort of vestment.

Deana Lawson’s “Corporeal” is on view from November 2 – December 23 at Light Work Gallery, Menschel Media Center, 316 Waverly Avenue, Syracuse 13244, 315.443.1300 or Gallery hours are 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM Sunday – Friday except for Syracuse University holidays. In addition to the 15 images in the gallery, Light Work’s “Contact Sheet” #154 serves as a catalogue for the exhibition.

TAGS: Robert Blake in Contact Sheet, Light Work’s publication,Corporeal, Syracuse photography show,Mary Goodwin,Menschel Media Center,Barbara, Deana Lawson exhibition
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