Critics’ Picks

Deana Lawson, Nikki's Kitchen, Detroit, Michigan, 2015, ink-jet print, 45 × 35".

Deana Lawson, Nikki's Kitchen, Detroit, Michigan, 2015, ink-jet print, 45 × 35".


Deana Lawson

The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
September 5, 2015–January 10, 2016

Deana Lawson's candid portraits are, like one's identity, at times crafted or found, but regardless are a composite of history and politics (of, in no particular order, geography, gender, and race). Her current show at the Art Institute of Chicago gathers together fourteen of her recent and semi-recent photographs showing meticulously posed moments, documentary-style shots, and reprints of found visual relics. The pictures point to the gendered experience and aesthetics of blackness in certain geographies, among them Brooklyn, Haiti, Jamaica, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Detroit. Some of the pictures are direct: Nikki's Kitchen, Detroit, Michigan, 2015, depicts its heroine posed, cat-like, over the back of a kitchen chair wearing a leopard-print jumpsuit; a latticework of security bars crossing the window behind her. Others are by turns spontaneous or memorial, such as Emily and Daughter, Jamaica, Found Image, n.d. a reprint of a family photograph, its subjects' faces ghoulishly blotched by discoloration in the surface of the original photograph.

Lawson's subjects tend to be strangers whom she has recently gotten to know, and her hyper-specific and intimate depictions of their bodies, spaces, and belongings - while often compared to the documentarian style of Jacob Holdt and the trenchant one-shot narratives of Nan Goldin—perhaps more closely evoke the immaterial, suggestive layering of content often achieved in painting. In the show's didactics, Lawson wrote, “As a black American, I was curious about the livelihood and existence of brothers and sisters in the West Indies and Africa, and wanted to connect my subjectivity and psyche to those of people in other lands.” And while she clearly seeks firstly to illuminate the distinct identity of each of her subjects, she also seems to carefully choose her photographs' sites (from Brooklyn to Detroit to Ethiopia) so location in itself becomes both a subject and lens through which those subjects’ lives are observed.