Gillian Laub, Family Matters @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A total of 61 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against wh1te walls in series of spaces on the second floor of the museum. The images were made between 1999 and 2020. (Installation shots below.)

The show is divided into four sections, as follows:

  • Act I: 21 digital inkjet prints
  • Act II: 17 digital inkjet prints
  • Act III: 14 digital inkjet prints, 1 scrolling display of group texts, 1 single-channel video (3 minutes 30 seconds)
  • Act IV: 9 digital inkjet prints
  • 1 installation of family photographs, videos, and other ephemera

A monograph of this body of work was published by Aperture in 2021 (here). (Cover below, with other gift shop merchandise.)

Comments/Context: Proximity, availability, and general grudging willingness to cooperate come together to make families the subject matter of many, many photographic projects, made by amateurs and master photographers alike. Simple documentation is where most of these projects start, and as a result, many family projects follow the contours of everyday life, like the snapshots in a family album.

The emotional drama of families is generally found in moments of predictable intensity – rites of passage or accomplishment, graduations, vacations, pregnancies and the birth of children, friendships, marriages (or divorces), as well as the inevitability of universal human traumas like aging, grief, and death. How we each wrestle with our own evolving palette of family relationships is a subject that is essentially inexhaustible, especially when those behind the camera dig more deeply into the nuances of the histories, relationships, emotions, and rich shared stories that animate any one family. Photographers like Tina Barney, Doug DuBois, Larry Sultan, and others have memorably probed the complexities of these kind of multi-generational family dynamics, generating bodes of work that draw us into the subtleties of charged facial expressions, gestures, and poses.

Gillian Laub’s series Family Matters continues in this tradition of long-term photographic studies of family. In her previous bodies of work, including her best-known Southern Rites project (as seen in a 2015 gallery show, reviewed here), Laub has generally pointed her camera away from herself, most often exploring the complexities in the lives of young people, teasing out facets of evolving identity in the midst of political unrest, war, persistent racial tensions, and other life changes. But in the background to these many projects, Laub was also consistently photographing her family, and given some unexpected twists in the family story that skew the interpersonal dynamics in unexpected ways, these pictures have now coalesced into a stand alone project of their own.

The images in the project span roughly 20 years, and have been divided in this show (and the accompanying monograph) into four acts, like a stage play. The first act covers the layers of older family members (parents, grandparents, and various aunts and uncles) above Laub when she was first out on her own as a young woman. The family lore places Laub’s grandfather Irving at the patriarchal center of things, and his story as the son of a Jewish immigrant from Russia, who succeeds in a real estate business and meets his wife of 70 years on the street in the Bronx, is a classic New York fable. (These backstories and image “captions” are delivered via smartphone audio files, which include anecdotes and explanations in the artist’s own voice, as well as snippets of voicemails to Laub from various other family members.)

The show anchors us in this vantage point with an image of the grandfather standing in his garden in a small tiger-striped bathing suit, a man confidently at ease in his own skin. This is then followed by small moments in the life of successful man, who having grown up without money is now happy to enjoy more extravagant pleasures with his extended family. Furs, jewelry, limousines, fancy homes with swimming pools, and seaside vacations all make appearances, but the mood is consistently re-centered on the joyful and warmly supportive elders (as seen by their granddaughter). Thanksgiving and other special events (like a bris or bar mitzvah) bring the whole clan together, re-cementing their connections, with Laub’s parents hosting a two-turkey holiday event seemingly filled with laughter. This first section of photographs is almost a well-to-do Jewish Westchester cliché (Laub’s parents live in Chappaqua), but Laub’s images are quietly aware of those stereotypes, finding personal space for genuine familial appreciation inside images of opinionated motherly women and edge-of-ridiculous ostentation.

The visible tension in the family starts to mount in Act II, which moves ahead to Laub’s marriage, the birth of her two children, and the aging and death of the oldest generation. Conflict over the wedding (the big flashy New York wedding her parents want versus the more modest intimate affair her new husband would prefer) leads to visible caught-in-the-middle stress, and Laub ultimately gives in to her parents’ wishes, as seen in the anxious-bride dress fitting and the stone-faced wedding planner meeting with multiple wines being tested.

The passing years have also taken their toll on the grandparents, and after Laub’s grandfather dies, her grandmother needs the help of an in-home caregiver. Laub memorably captures the complexity of this relationship in an image of the Black caregiver with her hand to her face in a gesture of tedious, almost skeptical exhaustion, while her grandmother obliviously smiles on and has her lunch. The story takes a more poignant turn as the grandmother continues to slip away, with pictures of her sitting in her bathroom, gently asleep in her wheelchair before her 90th birthday party, and then sequential pictures of her in hospice care, and then the same bathroom now emptied out after her death. Along the way, images of Laub’s young children (one with a heart condition) are sprinkled in, linking the generations and marking the passing of time and the redefining of roles.

And if this is where the story ended, Laub’s family chronicle would feel like many others we have seen before. But Act III (perhaps just after the “intermission” in this play) offers an unexpected twist in the story, which proceeds to percolate through the last two acts. The year is now 2016, and the polarizing thunderbolt to the Laub family is that the artist’s parents have become ardent Trump supporters. The parents seem to go all in on Trump, from attending the Inauguration Ball to sporting various kinds of Trump merchandise, from hats and aprons to golf club head covers and yard signs. The artist, her leftward leaning husband, and other members of the extended family are far from amused; in fact, they are so horrified (as seen in a scrolling view of the family group text from that time) that it threatens to blow up the family. The images from this section oscillate between views of the self-satisfied parents (and the gun-toting nephew) to opposing side setups with Trump rubber masks and Elizabeth Warren cutouts – the family is clearly at odds with itself, and Laub even admits that bringing her children over to visit their grandparents became difficult.

Once again, Laub essentially gets caught in the middle, her parents (and other family members) chiding her for making too much of a big deal about their politics, and Laub feeling confused by their support of overt racism, sexism, other injustices, and cornered for trying to make them see the errors in their thinking. While the parents gamely put on their novelty aprons for the traditional family Thanksgiving, the Trump paraphernalia placed around Laub’s seat at the table falls flat as a joke, and the tensions only seem to mount from there. In a sense, the clash of perspectives we saw on a national scale in those years was taking place on a very much more personal scale in Laub’s family, and her pictures record that nearly constant state of miscommunication, misunderstanding, disruption, and lingering distrust.

The arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 signals the beginning of Act IV, and the isolations of lockdown momentarily separate the sparring parties. Forced family togetherness (and the absence of domestic help) beings Laub and her children into tighter proximity, but the issues with her parents only worsened, culminating in a poignantly estranged picture of the parents bringing her a cake and a mylar balloon for her birthday. In the image, the parents stand outside on the deck behind the glass door wearing their masks, the cake and balloon like peace offerings between warring factions; but the problems only worsen, both nationally and within her family, with the George Floyd killing and the ensuing protests that spring and summer.

Laub continues to struggle with the incongruities in how she sees her parents through the holiday of Yom Kippur (as seen in a dense spread of food), and has trouble reconciling the long-standing friendship between her mother and her best friend Bonnie (an ardent Biden supporter); a picture of the two older women embracing (in their opposing political masks) seems to be an example of the compartmentalizing the artist has been having trouble accepting, where two people can still be friends even when they don’t understand (or agree with) each other’s opinions. In the end, Trump loses the election, the tension in the family abates, an awkward outdoor Thanksgiving meal is had (complete with novelty aprons), and something like normalcy tries to return.

A massive wall of family photos, reaching back through the generations, provides a coda to Laub’s own works, perhaps with the message of the enduring power of family across time. But the emotional conflict and discomfort in Laub’s photographs remains, and some disagreements between families stubbornly refuse to be entirely resolved. What is perhaps most impressive about this project is how Laub was able to pick up her camera in these moments of intensity and gather herself enough to make carefully organized compositions. Again and again, the apparent casualness of a moment has been clarified by Laub’s eye, paring it down to essentials that communicate the tenor of the emotional atmosphere.

For those of us that live in or near New York city, Family Matters has so many exactly right touch points of Jewish Westchester that it is almost possible to see it simply as a smartly crafted insider’s portrait of a New York subculture. But it is Laub’s genuinely honest struggle with the Trumpian politics of her parents (and who they have potentially become by embracing those ideas) that gives this project its durable bite. There is very real tension in the last two acts of this drama, and in a sense, it is still partially unresolved, as it takes the stubborn polarities of the nation and shoehorns them into the interactions of one family. What’s fascinating is Laub ultimately has to come to terms with the reality that who is “right” and who is “wrong” may not be the right (or only) way to frame the question, when it comes to keeping a family together. We may intellectually like the strict clarity of choosing between opposing ideas, but when families are involved, Laub’s photographs show us that separating our loved ones from their political opinions is altogether messier than we might ever have expected.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. Laub is represented by Benrubi Gallery in New York (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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