Danny Lyon, Wanderer @Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

JTF (just the facts): A total of 33 photographs and videos, generally framed in black and matted, and hung/displayed against white walls in the main gallery space, the entry areas, and in a darkened viewing room.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 3 montages of archival digital color prints, 1973-1994, 1999, 2011, sized roughly 23×23, 24×25, 27×33, unique
  • 19 gelatin silver prints, 1962, 1970, 1970/2017, 1972, 1973, 1975/2017, 1977, 1977-1978, 1983/2017, 1999, 2014, sized roughly 14×18, 16×21, 17×14 (or reverse), 17×19, 18×18, 17×21 (or reverse), 20×26, 22×22
  • 2 gelatin silver print with hand-applied decoration, 1973, 1975, sized roughly 16×18, 17×21
  • 1 ektalure print, 1973, sized roughly 24×29
  • 1 type c color print, 1980, sized roughly 18×18
  • 2 archival pigment prints, 1975/later, 2013, sized roughly 19×24
  • 1 album page made from 2 1/4 contact prints, 1999, sized roughly 16×19
  • 1 set of 4 Fuji instant color film prints, 2011, sized (together) roughly 16×18
  • 1 single channel color film, 1978, 60 minutes, in an edition of 3
  • 1 16mm film, 1974, 20 minutes, in an edition of 3
  • 1 HD color video, 2017, 48 minutes, in an edition of 10

(Installation shots and video stills below.)

Comments/Context: One of the knocks on Danny Lyon’s excellent career retrospective at the Whitney in 2016 (here) was that it was extremely front-loaded, largely focusing on his landmark documentary photo projects from the 1960s. What was noticeably missing from that survey was a comprehensive look at what Lyon had done artistically after he moved to New Mexico in the early 1970s. The exhibit offered a few of Lyon’s films from that period and a smattering of later images from various locations, but failed to tie it all into a coherent curatorial explanation of how Lyon’s work (and his artistic worldview) had changed as a result of his new surroundings.

This gallery show, while not exactly a corrective to those overlooked questions, at least attempts to fill in some of the wide New Mexican gaps in the arc of Lyon’s career. And while there are no neatly self contained, easy to single out projects like The Bikeriders or his pictures in the Texas prison system in this aggregation of work, Lyon’s approach to the life he found around him in the desert Southwest is no less human or perceptive than some of his best early pictures.

What has consistently set Lyon apart from many of his photographic contemporaries has been his ability to patiently get to know his subjects, this spending time and talking with honesty and attention over months and years leading to the trust relationships that have enabled his work. When he got to New Mexico, he turned this approach on his local friends and neighbors and their families and children, slowly getting to know the rhythms of the community. Many of the people he encountered and got to know were undocumented workers from Mexico, and many of the pictures he made starting in the early 1970s and continuing on through to today dig into the lives of these people, across multiple decades and generations.

The earliest images in this show capture the kids and teenagers around town, as they hung out together, went to the local fair, or played basketball in the dusty vacant lots behind houses. These first relationships, particularly with members of the Jaramillo family, would form the basis for long term studies, in both photographs and films. Willie Jaramillo was the subject of a 1986 film by Lyon, and images/collages here connect us back to Willie’s friend Johnnie Sanchez, Willie’s brothers David and Ferny, and Johnnie’s brother Andrew. There is an easy going flair to these pictures, filled with the open contagious smiles of youth, but also a clear and mature sense of composition, with Lyon using spatial depth and resonant patterns (a shiny truck grill, a lighted carnival ride) to create layered portraits.

Other photographs from the same 1970s era explore the realities of undocumented immigrant workers more fully. One project followed the life of Eduardo Rivera Marquez AKA Eddie (in both photographs and a video), in his days as a construction laborer. Again, Lyon tells this story with a combination of human sensitivity and photographic clarity, capturing Eddie’s work with a hand saw and plane, or simply standing in the shadow of the camera, with grace and intelligence. The same can be said for Lyon’s well-crafted images (and another film) of citrus pickers in Maricopa County, Arizona. He watches as they make tortillas in the morning in a makeshift camp, bathe in the irrigation canal between the trees, and stride into the sun in their hats, the photographs making their daily trials visible.

The centerpiece of the show is Wanderer, a new film by Lyon that reconnects with some of the same family members that populated his early New Mexico work. Ferny Jaramillo is the central character in this tale, along with his sister Gloria, Willie’s friend Dennis, and Gloria’s daughter Janice, among others. Time hasn’t been especially friendly to these folks – Ferny is now in his 50s and suffering from mental illness, while others have spent time in jail or been murdered. Lyon’s video weaves all of these disparate threads into a meandering and meditative brew that doesn’t come to any neat conclusions. Ferny wanders in a disoriented, stupefied haze through the cacophony of the state fair and the flashing lights of the local casino, Lyon’s patient stream-of-consciousness conversations with him almost unintelligible. Janice tells her version of the family story, with a manic dose of her own struggles. And Dennis visits the graveyard, quietly lighting candles in papers bags for too many old friends, with the roar of the highway in the background.

In between these various family episodes, Lyon inserts a series of more pensive scenes, where he silently observes the surroundings with acute attention, aided by his loyal (and seemingly well trained) dog Trip. This is where Lyon’s photographic eye truly shines, with dull details coalescing into taut momentary compositions right before our eyes. Some of the best of these flashes of frame organizing come in junkyards and car graveyards, where arrangements of open hoods, and details of doors, wheels, and other discarded scrap become fascinating tangles. As Trip runs through the dusty pathways, Lyon catches repeated glimpses of photographic beauty – a shiny green side of a truck, in particular – and his searching eye discovers similar gems in the crack of a stucco wall, the piercing scream of a tea kettle left to boil, the interlocked angles of music stands at a church service, and in the rocky hills above town. It is these moments of resolution, where Lyon asserts deliberate control over the arrangement of the objects in the frame, that have a sense of artistic magic.

Lyon’s recent multi-image collages feel more precious and mannered in their careful arrangement of matching patterns. Circular washing machine doors, succulent plants, and snowy gravestones are gathered into geometric crosses, and while these works are earnest and reverential, they seem more folk art crafty than incisive.

As a survey of Lyon’s New Mexico years, this show has more consistent strength and nuance that we might have expected. The earlier images from the 1970s are reliably well made and often singularly striking, bringing thoughtfuless and sensitivity to a community that had been overlooked. And Lyon’s most recent film has sparkles of that same brash talent, perhaps mellowed and distracted a bit by the passing of the intervening years. This portion of Lyon’s long career needs yet another more intense edit (beyond what has been done here) to get at the core of what has been photographically important about his New Mexico projects, and this exhibit provides tantalizing points of evidence that this effort is worth undertaking.

Collector’s POV: The photographs and videos/films in this show are priced as follows. The photographs/collages range in price from $7000 to $30000, based on size, vintage/modern print, and additional decoration/construction. The videos are $10000 and $15000. Lyon’s work is consistently available in the secondary markets, with recent single image prices at auction ranging between roughly $1000 and $25000.

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