New York

Muzi Quawson

From the recent blockbusters Knocked Up and Juno to the media hounding of Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise, America seems to be in the grip of a strange obsession with young mothers. Muzi Quawson’s first solo show in New York invoked this fascination through a voyeuristic look into the life of a twentysomething folk musician and mother, Amanda Jo Williams. In twelve large photographic light boxes, Quawson documents the daily lives of Williams and her twin toddlers, who reside in Woodstock, New York. But while the photographs are effective depictions of domestic motherhood, Quawson’s work is more valuable for its convincing—if romantic—meditation on the recent past.

Quawson, a 2006 graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, met Williams in 2002 and arranged several visits to photograph her over the next four years. The artist exhibited the resultant pictures as a slide show of more than two hundred images, titled Pull Back the Shade, in the 2006 Tate Triennial of New British Art. By honing the selection here and using light boxes instead of a projection, Quawson continued to emphasize, through different means, the links between her work and cinema. Up close, with their gritty spots and blurred edges, the prints are reminiscent of old film stills. From a distance, they resemble scenes from American road movies like Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971), or aged record covers—as in Union City Blues, Brooklyn, New York, 2004, a shot of a tall, thin, and shabby Williams crossing a street toward an American flag painted on a garage door. This work also brings to mind Warhol’s line: “[I]f you see a person who looks like your teenage fantasy walking down the street, it’s probably not your fantasy, but someone who had the same fantasy as you and decided instead of getting it or being it, to look like it. . . . Just think about all the James Deans and what it means.”

Warhol may have had swaggering more than stoned in mind, but Quawson’s work does explore the reinvention of hip. Specifically, it does so in ways similar to the recently minted (and unfortunately named) pop music subgenre “freak folk.” Finding formative influences in the music of their parents’ generation, the neohippie participants in this scene plunder the sights and sounds of the 1970s as if the decade had never ended. Perhaps contemporary artists searching for something authentic and/or pastoral in the visual culture of the same period could be united under a similar heading. But it’s hard to pinpoint the grounds of the phenomenon among so many different voices. Do the ’70s really resonate so strongly with our own era? Or is it that we just can’t treat those years as history quite yet? Nevertheless, a reading of Quawson’s photographs alone within this framework would be reductive.

Lush and warm, these images are not only alluring but rife with complexities. We see the free-spirited family doing everyday things, but ultimately they remain elusive, their personalities remote. This quality is most apparent in Camper, Upstate New York, 2004, wherein the clearly exhausted young mother and her daughters appear lost in thought at the kitchen table of a small trailer, while a pile of dirty dishes rests in the cramped space behind them. In focusing so intensely on Williams and her children, Quawson introduces and achieves a sensitive study of parenthood, the lasting value of which transcends its incidentally modish look.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler