Carolyn Drake, Knit Club @Yancey Richardson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 color photographs from the series Knit Club, framed in dark wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2018 or 2019. Physical sizes range from roughly 24×31 to 38×51 inches (or the reverse), and all of the prints are available in editions of 5. A monograph of this body of work was published in 2020 by TBW Books (here).

Also on view are 5 color photographs from the series Isolation Therapy, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the smaller side gallery. These works are archival pigment prints, made in 2020. Each is sized roughly 51×38 inches and is available in an edition of 5.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Portraiture, in its most straightforward sense, is an exercise in capturing a likeness. In most cases, it is a collaboration between artist and subject, where the seeing and being seen are overt and literal, and the end result is some kind of picture of the person. But what happens when the sitter doesn’t want to be seen? Does the process break down completely, or is it transformed into something altogether different, where the representation of the subject is made indirect or metaphorical?

Carolyn Drake’s project Knit Club actively wrestles with these issues. Inspired by the books of William Faulkner, and in particular, his layered use of multiple narrators, Drake has applied a similar approach to portraits she made of a group of local women she met while living in Water Valley, Mississippi. Each portrait feels like a shared product, with the sitters participating in crafting images that tell their stories, and the aggregation of the pictures mimics Faulkner’s medley of stream-of-consciousness voices, with a touch of the writer’s Southern Gothic flair to further unsettle the overall mood.

In the spirit of the group it documents, the photographs in Knit Club have a by women for women ethos that centers on questions of femininity and motherhood, while simultaneously rejecting the relevance of the typical male gaze. There are very few faces in these pictures, and bodies are often similarly covered or obscured. This leaves room for more open ended interpretation and identity-building, while adding to the overall feeling of ambiguity and elusive mystery.

Several of the images use masks and other objects as interrupting devices, preventing us from seeing or identifying specific faces. One mother/daughter portrait is disrupted by an unsettling white papier-mâché mask worn by the mother, giving the gentle touch between the two a strange hidden anonymity (or death premonition). Another picture reverses this masking, offering us a portrait of the interior of another such mask, with the distinctive imprint of the woman’s face seen inside. And a third finds the sitter wearing an eagle’s head mask amid water-stained wallpaper, bringing unexpected magic and role playing to the proceedings.

The blocking motif continues with even more richness and resonance in two other photographs. In “Megan and Hazel Sue”, the mother (we assume) stands holding an early American portrait of a child, making a connection between past and present, and potentially between layers of familial generations; the daughter (we assume) is below, holding onto the mother’s knees. The two sets of hands create an echo of holding, linking the three women into one continuum. And in “Lucy with Azaleas”, the named person is likely the infant on the floor, who is surrounded by women who have covered themselves with colorful azalea blossoms, turning them into a bright sea of comforting support. It’s a picture that alludes to the broad connections between women raising children, where extended family, friends, and neighbors come together to support and help one another, without necessarily needing to be visible.

Other pictures from the project take on a more ominous, almost surreal tone. In one, a huge yellow snake coils around the trunk of a tree, with a single red-Conversed shoe dangling from above, likely an indirect portrait of a pair of friends, but still unnerving. The same might be said of what appears to be a mother and child duo, with the mother’s face reflected in a mirror and caught in the shadowed silhouette of her son; its circumstances may have been mundane, but the image revels in possibilities of ghost-story haunting and a mother’s spirit inhabiting her son’s head. And one of the few seemingly straightforward portraits in the show finds Katherine standing centered in the frame, but the combination of her anxious face, her arms folded fragility, and the gaping dark void behind her (a culvert of some sort) gives the picture a much more uncertain tone.

In a side room, a selection of Drake’s pandemic efforts are on view, providing a glimpse of how the photographer filled her time during the lockdowns. Each work corresponds to a single day, with various household materials at hand arranged into outdoor sculptural assemblages. There is a messy randomness to these temporary concoctions, with objects tied loosely together and gathered into piles, and draped backdrops hung from the trees. The one potentially intriguing idea in these formal accumulations is the inclusion in many of the works of a small surveillance camera, which looks back at us as we look at it. Drake doesn’t do much with this presence, but the reversal of the gaze it implies (and enables) has the potential to lead somewhere unexpected.

The allusive misdirection in Drake’s Knit Club portraits is what makes the best of them memorable – they upend our expectations for how a portrait will operate, and instead offer us something less obvious. These women have chosen to show us something more nuanced than predictable surfaces and female forms, and have asked us to see these staged moments as stand-ins for aspects of identity. That’s an idea worth thinking about further, as we collectively work to incorporate (and reclaim) more previously marginalized perspectives into the larger sweep of the medium.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $4500 and $8500, based on size. Drake’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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