Donavon Smallwood: 2021 Aperture Portfolio Prize Winner @Baxter St at CCNY

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 black and white photographs, framed in wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2020. Physical sizes are 16×20, 20×25, 22×28, 24×30, and 33×40 inches (or the reverse), and no edition information was provided on the checklist. The show also includes one video work, displayed in a wooden box, from 2020. The work on view is drawn from the project Languor, which won the 2021 Aperture Portfolio Prize. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many contemporary Black artists and photographers, the history of Seneca Village, in what is now Central Park, has provided an open-ended jumping off point for artistic imagination. Founded in the mid-1820s when a local landowner subdivided a large plot and sold off individual lots, Seneca Village was a predominantly Black community located along the west side of the park, near what is now the 86th Street cut through. Many of the residents were middle-class landowners, and the community likely felt like a refuge from the crowded city. When Central Park was created in 1853, all of the residents living in Seneca Village (and those living elsewhere in the newly-defined 775 acre preserve) were relocated via eminent domain, and the village was razed. The questions of what life was like for the Black people in that community, and what Seneca Village might have turned into had it been left to flourish, have now become elusive dreamlike unknowns, particularly for Black New Yorkers.

Donavon Smallwood grew up in Harlem, and so has his own memories of encounters with urban nature, largely in the northern parts of the park. In Languor, he mixes attentive black-and-white portraits and landscapes (both made in Central Park) into a tranquilly lyrical flow, where young Black people are seen simply being at ease in nature. His project updates the idea of Seneca Village as a peaceful oasis within the city, making the engagement between young Black people and the natural world more contemporary.

Smallwood’s portraits from the series are disarmingly straightforward medium format views taken in natural light, where parkgoers (and others brought to the park to be photographed) stand or sit surrounded by the softened glow of nature. Some look directly into the camera, engaging us openly and directly, while others turn to the side or look away, perhaps in more introspective or quiet moods. The gentle blur of the background (in the form of idyllic trees, lakes, and grassy areas) centers our attention on the individuals, and the details of their expressions, gestures, hairstyles, and clothing are captured with a heightened sense of compassionate observation. The pictures are calm and reassuring, each image rooted in a kind of acutely perceptive slowness that isn’t often associated with urban Black young people.

With the exception of one lovely image of a young man in a du-rag sitting in the grass which is interrupted by blurred foreground branch, most of Smallwood’s portraits are cropped in quite tightly. Along with the dappling or hazy brightness of the background light, this pared down closeness heightens the sense of intimacy, almost like a conversation. The best of Smallwood’s portraits can be nestled into an increasingly crowded field of sensitive portraiture of young Black people, including Tyler Mitchell’s images of lounging picnics and playful childhood positivity, Naima Green’s portraits of Black creatives in green spaces, and John Edmonds’s portraits and nudes of young Black men. Stylistically, Smallwood’s portraits feel linked back to an older style of engaged black-and-white portraiture, perhaps as practiced by Judith Joy Ross, Dawoud Bey, or more recently, Vanessa Winship.

If Smallwood’s portraits represent deliberate but fleeting moments of human connection, his landscapes feel altogether more inward looking and meditative. Given the realities of scrubby urban nature infused with the inadvertent touch of humanity, even in a place as controlled as Central Park, we might have expected Smallwood to emerge with images reminiscent of the subtle ordinariness of John Gossage or Robert Adams. Instead of lingering on the edges with a sense of irony or outrage, he seems to have tunneled deeper into the thickets and overlooked corners of the park on his own, where the light drifts toward cool shadowy darkness even in the middle of the day. Here he captures Edenic scenes where long exposures turn flowing creeks into sinuous lines, and common plant specimens are isolated with unlikely reverence. His landscapes feel private and personal, even when they wander into the cloying beauty of a butterfly perched on a flower blossom or a spiderweb with a hole in the shape of a heart – and while such pictures might feel like clichés, as seen from Smallwood’s vantage point, they seem to genuinely represent the astonishing wonder of nature, especially to the eyes of a kid from the nearby urban streets. Other works draw leaves and thin tendrils in from the enveloping blackness, almost like a magic trick.

When the two sets of photographs are hung in alternating fashion, as they are here, we as viewers oscillate between public and private, all within the realm of a fondly seen natural world. We might be tempted to attribute a tougher edge to Smallwood’s work, declaring it a reclaiming of the park, but these photographs don’t feel overtly strident – instead, they offer moments of sometimes tentative comfort and appreciation, where Black young people resettle into a place that was once theirs in the first place, and find it to be more welcoming and “natural” than they might have imagined. That we haven’t seen enough pictures like these that exude such understated searching serenity is its own art historical problem, but the fact that Smallwood’s series has emerged now (and to such acclaim) says his photographs have undeniably touched a nerve. They certainly represent a promising, and thoughtful, start for an emerging photographer.

Collector’s POV: While the prints in this show were ostensibly on sale, no price information was actually available from Baxter St at CCNY. Interested collectors will need to follow up directly with Aperture, which is handling the print sales related to its portfolio prize. Smallwood’s work has no secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best and perhaps only available option.

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