JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 large scale black and white photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are digital chromogenic prints, made in 2013 or 2014. Each print is sized 45×45 inches, and is available in an edition of 5. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: We have reached a particular moment in American cultural and political history where reducing those who are dissimilar from ourselves into labels has sadly become all too common. Instead of seeing each person as a complex combination of richly nuanced characteristics, we have increasingly fallen to using simplistic identity groupings to structure our thinking, these blunt categorizations often based on race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, wealth, or any number of other identifiers that can be readily singled out. When the goal is to separate ourselves from those we see as threatening or hostile to our own worldview, the easiest thing to do is to disregard the subtleties of their humanity and assume that they can be understood (and isolated) via rudimentary division. With this pernicious social trend as a percolating backdrop, Erica Deeman’s photographs intelligently reject that kind of thinking, using a clever aesthetic inversion to upend such overly easy stereotyping.
Back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the cut paper silhouette was a popular portrait format. In those pre-camera days, the silhouette was a relatively inexpensive way to generate a reasonable artistic likeness of a person. The sitter was usually seen in profile from the shoulders up, and the contours of the face and hair were cut out of black paper. The resulting profile was then placed against a white backdrop, creating a boldly visual representation of the subject. These likenesses were essentially featureless – there was no detail at all aside from the edge outline – so while they certainly provided a recognizable essence of the sitter, they also reduced that person to just a few identifying physical characteristics.
Deeman has taken this original idea of the cut paper silhouette and thoughtfully repurposed it using photography. From a distance, her extra large images of women are effectively reduced to silhouettes, each one a dark profile against a shining white background. And while a few of her subjects have the distinctive braided or short kinky hair of an African-American woman, from afar, that’s about all we can deduce about this collection of sitters – they’re all women, of different ages, with different bone structures and body types, and the process of seeing them in silhouetted profile without any clothing makes it impossible to definitively say much more, even about their potential races or particular ethnic backgrounds.
But up close, the illusion of the featureless silhouette starts to break down. Deeman’s images are not flat forms, but color images with subtle nuances of skin tone, lighting, and depth. We can see the curves of collarbones and shoulders, the gentle hollows of eyes and chins, and even the tiny wisps of hair on the back of the neck. If we look hard, facial expressions and skin textures emerge, and we start to realize that these aren’t simplified types but real individuals. We can also now see more clearly that all of these woman have brown or black skin, so what Deeman is actually showing us is a complex and celebratory range of black femininity, hiding underneath the guise of reduction.
The strength in this body of work lies in the way it questions the way we see and are seen. At a historical time when women of color (and women in general) are alternately more empowered and increasingly under attack, Deeman’s pictures get right to the root of these contradictions. When we look at others, do we see the simplest outlines and patterns, drawing conclusions without really looking, or do we force ourselves to take the time to examine and understand each other with more care, discovering the details that make us more than just caricatures? Deeman’s portraits oscillate back and forth, and that changing resolution is a smart visual metaphor for the critical difference between a diluted (and discounted) outline and a warmly full-bodied and confident human presence.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $6000 each. Deeman’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.