For the love of melanin: ‘Deana Lawson’ at CAM

Frieda Curtis | Staff Writer

Deana Lawson’s photographs in the newly opened exhibition, “Deana Lawson,” at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis resonate with grace and power and beauty.

“I see the domestic space as a site of power,” the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based photographer said in her Jan. 28 talk at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM), following the opening of the show the night before. She spoke to a full gallery, eloquently moving between anecdotes about how her images are made, inspirations that have informed her work and the broader themes that she actively engages through her artistic practice.

Deana Lawson’s piece “Kingdom Come” is on display at the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum. Lawson’s newly-opened exhibition “Deana Lawson” will be on view until April 16.Courtesy of Deana Lawson

Deana Lawson’s piece “Kingdom Come” is on display at the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum. Lawson’s newly-opened exhibition “Deana Lawson” will be on view until April 16.

One of two black artists currently showing at CAM, Lawson’s images deal specifically with depictions of the black body. Her incredibly striking color photographs challenge and create new representations of the black body, particularly the female body, within the history of photography.

Lawson presents her viewers with a striking paradox: Her images appear candid and momentary, almost like a documentary still, but they are, in fact, highly staged. Every element is accounted for, the relationships between subjects are often constructed—sometimes, she even sketches out the composition of the image before going to shoot.

Still, her images come to life, fleshed out by the vulnerability of her nude subjects. Their personalities are unmistakable as they gaze directly and intensely into the camera, engaging at one time with Lawson and now with us.

In these works, the physical spaces are equally as important as the figures within them. Her subjects are sometimes photographed in their own domestic settings but not always. This element of discovering a foreign but somehow familiar space mirrors Lawson’s travel through countries that she considers significant to the African diaspora and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. By combining multiple layers of time and location into one image, Lawson considers the different qualities of selfhood that transcend locational or temporal fixture.

One particularly striking photo in the show is “Living Room,” taken in Brooklyn in 2015. A room full of things frames a couple in the center of the image. A full laundry cart and brown boxes, overflowing with clothes, shoes, DVDs and backpacks in the foreground, leave only a narrow strip of empty floor that leads the viewer’s eye to the couple’s feet. The window behind the figures is haphazardly covered with a shower curtain duct taped to the wall (Lawson described the duct tape as an unplanned symbol for the willingness to “put in work” in relationships). The woman perches on a radiator; her head is bent slightly down, but her eyes look up to confront the viewer. Wrapped in her arms, a man leans back, completely at ease between her legs.

“I really wanted to use her to represent love—black love—and romance, particularly in the black community because I feel like so much of what is in the media is about divisiveness,” Lawson said about this image.

There is gripping beauty in the disarray of the room, the power of the embrace, the position of control that the woman is in and the way the light highlights and casts shadows across their skin.

When discussing “Mickey & Friends <3” (taken in Jamaica in 2013), also on view, Lawson mentioned that she consciously used skin as a color palette in her composition of the image. She went on to remember a book in which melanoid skin was described as having eyes of memory. “I think for me, skin is super important. I guess I imagine, particularly melanoid skin as this carrier of memory…as being embedded with psychic memory.”

Lawson has been selected for the 2017 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. For this exhibition, she will create a new body of work. Organized by guest curator Kelly Shindler, “Deana Lawson,” will be on view at CAM until April 16.

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