New York

Dawoud Bey

David Beitzel Gallery

Emotion has been the theme of Dawoud Bey’s work since his early pictures of everyday life on the streets of Harlem, Mexico, and Puerto Rico (ca. 1975–85). The best of these black and white studies, taken with a 35-mm camera, are distinguished by close observation of, and measured sympathy for, moments of ordinary feeling that transform a passing stranger into the hero of his section of sidewalk, or turn the street into landscape. Bey’s sensibility is attuned equally to sparks of laughter, the melancholy of waiting, and the intensity that quickens a step or lengthens a stride.

Since 1991, Bey has taken Polaroid portraits of mostly African-American subjects, rendered in a palette of glowing browns, tans, golds, and reds. The unwieldy, slowly operating 20-by-24-inch Polaroid view camera he now uses has led Bey to explore the conventions of traditional portraiture: subject on the picture plane, introduced by the bottom edge, dominating the frame. He uses the camera’s rendering of line, surface, and value to express clothing as costume and drapery, and the human figure as aesthetic form and compositional element. (In his black and white work, form was subordinate to emotion and social content; now all three contend equally.) Here the faces of African-Americans from many walks of life project tenderness, affection, amusement, delight, and alertness.

The portraits on view in his recent show demonstrated Bey’s latest approach to pictorial form: taking several exposures of the same sitter or sitters, moving the camera vertically or sideways between exposures, and then abutting the framed pictures to form large multipaneled works. Across the abutments, faces and bodies are repeated and varied, the heads and features of the subjects widened, torsos lengthened. This often results in gratuitous anatomical exaggerations that distort handsome people into grotesques: method degenerates into a thin, mechanical pseudo-Cubism. But when successful, Bey’s approach creates a fictional passage of time within a single work and thus becomes the occasion for narrative. It also seems to rescue the artist from an interest in random emotions and to lead him to themes of familial and romantic love.

This, at least, is the implication of a two-paneled portrait Mike and Czerina, 1993, in which the boy dominates the left panel and the girl the right. In the work’s fictional passage of time from left to right panel, Czerina emerges as the work’s formal hero and as the relationship’s emotional center and source of beauty. She begins as an incidental character at the left panel’s right edge, a fragment of a profile, her cheek half-hidden by demurely folded hands, her half-lidded glance tentative; she seems an out-of-focus attribute of the good-looking, sharply focused, full-portrait Mike. But in the right-hand panel, it’s Mike who is the shadowy, soft-focus background fragment and Czerina who takes center stage. Her strongly posed hands, her knotted head scarf with its flowing tail, the gleaming studs of her leather choker, her knit white cotton vest over a black openwork cotton shirt engage the eye, her frank, bold gaze our emotions. She enters as his girlfriend, he ends as her companion consort, acknowledging, without loss of dignity or affection, the power of her spirit.

Ben Lifson