Deana Lawson, Coulson Family, 2008, ink-jet print, 30 × 39 1⁄4".

Deana Lawson, Coulson Family, 2008, ink-jet print, 30 × 39 1⁄4".

Deana Lawson

Curated by Eva Respini of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, along with Peter Eleey of the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing and Shanghai, this Deana Lawson survey—which travels to moma ps1 in New York from April 14 to September 5 and then to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art from October 7, 2022, to February 19, 2023—covers fifteen years of the artist’s output and reveals her commitment to the twofold task of using photography to represent contemporary Black life while questioning the nature of representation. She approaches this task by merging the fictional with the documentary. People and places in these pictures may seem familiar or recognizable, but something always sets off a loud or quiet dissonance; likewise, even when the setup feels bizarre or contrived, it remains rooted in the everyday. Regardless, the images always touch on something unseen, intimating that reality and desire are out of joint.

Most of the images here featured people, but I found myself thinking as much about their environments. The settings where Lawson’s subjects reside seem incongruent with the spaces in which the pictures are displayed. Like other photographers, such as Richard Billingham, Malerie Marder, or Daniela Rossell, who literally meet their subjects where they live, Lawson used the starkness of the white cube to make the settings she depicts even more vivid. Consider the furniture: the bulky chairs crammed in too close to the sofa on which the eponymous nude of Otisha, 2013, leans with a seemingly uncomfortable stiffness, the heavy floral-print curtains behind her exacerbating the space’s claustrophobic air. Or take the couple in Living Room, 2015, who are surrounded by possessions overflowing from boxes and a granny cart, the curtain behind them fastened to the wall with masking tape. Accompanying her big pictures with arrays of found photos wedged into corners of the ICA’s galleries, and with crystals scattered here and there across the floor, Lawson quietly reminded us that exhibition spaces are never as neutral as they appear.

In the great majority of the artist’s indoor shots, at least in this selection, windows are almost completely covered; all the doors are closed. It was almost impossible not to give the artist’s subjects your focused attention because the rooms in which they appeared, cut off from the outside world, felt like display cases or theater sets. Even though her photographs capture a parallel world, they remain totally emblematic of the specific lives being represented.

The artist makes it clear that we can’t quite know the people she shows us—that the stories they and their surroundings harbor are far more complicated than a picture could ever reveal, and that viewers’ speculations about them are fiction. One of the ways she does this is by delicately highlighting her protagonists’ ambiguous relation to their settings, which are dense with stories one can’t quite divine but whose weight is palpable. In one of the catalogue essays, theorist Tina M. Campt speaks of “impoverished settings that lack any indication of grandeur.” And yet the spaces Lawson portrays lay claim to creativity and beauty in ways that belie their social marginality. It’s for this reason that her unsettling images are as dazzling as they are poignant.