Critics’ Picks

View of “Dawoud Bey,” 2013.


Dawoud Bey

Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami
770 NE 125th Street
June 7 - September 8

Beyond achieving likeness, the art of portraiture at its best strives to reveal a real sense of an individual’s presence. “Dawoud Bey: Picturing People” traces Bey’s commitment to aesthetic formalism enmeshed with the politics of portrayal, as the artist captures what he has characterized as “the least untrue self.” Bey consistently pays lenticular attention to self-possessed subjects who squarely convey monumentality. Not the result of a candid camera, but rather of the consent of his subjects, Bey’s street photographs resonate with a tradition of studio portraiture in the vein of James Van Der Zee, featuring individuals in stilled, composed moments, outside of time while also at its mercy.

Two photographs from 1988, A Boy Eating a Foxy Pop and A Girl in a Deli Doorway, create a particularly potent pairing. In the first, the viewer encounters a young black boy posed against a graffitied garage door, staring directly into the camera, with an ice-pop wrapper pulled languidly between his mouth and the slack grasp of his hand. An unbuttoned shirt hangs off his small frame, speaking to the casualness of summer and the openness of youth. In the latter, a young African-American woman leans on the frame of the entryway, suggestive of an interiority that is guarded yet inviting, paused momentarily at the threshold of adolescence and self-awareness. Such disarming poignancy also typifies the close-ups in “Class Pictures” (2002-2006), a project alluding to the tradition of school portraits as well as to loaded economic and social divisions. Fragmented diptychs of large-format Polaroids, such as Shomari and Willie, 1996, close in further on the disruptive ontology of photography, conveying the contingent nature of the production and performance of self. Dawoud Bey subtly startles the viewer with the intimacy and privilege of looking into the magnified eyes of another.