Deana Lawson @Sikkema Jenkins

JTF (just the facts): Ten large-scale color photographs, unmatted, in gold frames, hung against white walls in the main gallery space and entry area. All the photographs are pigment prints, made between 2013 and the present. Framed, they range in size from roughly 40×60 inches to 57×71 inches (or reverse) and are available in editions of 4. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In Seagulls in Kitchen (2017), a photograph in Brooklyn-based artist Deana Lawson’s dazzling solo exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins, a young woman in a crop top, shorts, and enormous hoop earrings poses barefoot in a harshly lit kitchen. A young man in spotless sneakers and baggy, camouflage-patterned pants stands behind her, his hands resting lightly on her hips. She stares straight at the camera; he looks down at her. The picture’s striking composition emphasizes their closeness; the couple is framed once by the white horizontal and vertical lines of the refrigerator, door jamb, and ceiling molding, and a second time by the kitchen window’s frilled curtain. It’s a powerful image of true and tender love—except that the two were strangers until they posed for this picture at Lawson’s request.

Lawson makes portraits of people she encounters on the street, through friends, or in her travels. Her pictures appear at first glance to be straightforward depictions of everyday working and middle-class black life. In fact, they are staged scenes to which both the sitters and the artist bring their histories and intentions, and in which imagination, collaboration, and even coincidence, all play a part.

The ten prints on view here, images shot in the United States, Swaziland, Jamaica, and South Africa, are larger than any Lawson has produced in the past. The bump in scale suits her working method, which is to position her subjects in rooms whose wealth of signifiers—the eponymous gilt wall decoration (provided by the artist) and the small store of dry goods on a shelf in Seagulls, for instance—encourage close attention. The exhibition, which also includes appropriated and abstract pictures, finds Lawson taking an increasingly multivalent approach to her subject: the complexities of race and representation, and the individual and collective construction of identity.

Ties of friendship, community, and familial and romantic love are a through line here, as well as the more universal connection of a shared African heritage, hinted at by the show’s opening photograph of an Edenic Jamaican forest. In Brother and Sister Soweto (2017), a young man in a pale cotton jacket stands in a cramped but tidy bedroom, his collection of designer sneakers neatly arranged in a corner. A small girl in a flowered dress leans against him. At the artist’s request, she has turned away from the camera to bury her face in her brother’s shirt. He, on the other hand, stares straight at the camera as he makes a Westside hand symbol, seeming to signal across time and space to gang members in a blown-up snapshot on the other side of the gallery.

Another work, a blurred scan of a photograph of a galaxy, has a found Polaroid of five young women sitting on a church pew tucked into its frame. A third picture shows a mother and daughter striking a pose in a room cluttered with possessions—including a fan, a vase of artificial flowers, and a stack of stereo equipment—with the older woman hiking her dress to reveal a prosthetic leg and brown plastic foot with varnished toenails.

Images of women make up a subcategory that includes a portrait of a ravishingly beautiful girl standing in a lavender-painted and purple-carpeted room. Clad in a purple bra and panty set that Lawson embellished with beads, a gold-toned wall clock on the wall behind her, she’s as queenly as a Van Eyck Virgin. Nearby, another photograph shows a thin woman in a headscarf holding, without much interest, her crying baby (though according to the gallery, it is the small child just visible at the edge of the picture who is hers, not the infant). As different as the two women seem, their visible tension makes them sisters under the skin.

The show’s stunning final image shows two men sitting on a leather couch as a third man makes a call in the background. A gold-colored dental device holds one man’s mouth open; stuck into the upper right-hand corner of the picture’s frame is a photograph of George Washington’s dentures, said to have been made from the teeth of African slaves at Mount Vernon. It’s a brilliant piece, made by one of the most interesting artists working today. As fantastical as it is, it doesn’t feel stagy or surreal. Instead, like all of Lawson’s art, it rings resoundingly true.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $28000 or $32000, based on size. Lawson’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.

Read more about: Deana Lawson, Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

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