Naima Green, Brief & Drenching @Fotografiska New York

JTF (just the facts): A total of 43 photographic works, variously framed, and displayed spotlit in a series of darkened galleries on the third floor of the museum.

The following works have been included in the exhibition:

  • 1 set of 54 photographic cards in embossed box (framed together), 2019
  • 11 inkjet prints, 2018
  • 7 dye diffusion transfer prints, 2014-2018
  • 3 inkjet prints, 2017, 2019
  • 1 inkjet print, 2017
  • 8 dye diffusion transfer prints (framed together), 2017-2019
  • 1 mixed media (including mirror and other objects), 2020
  • 1 single channel video, 9 minutes 26 seconds, 2020
  • 6 inkjet prints, 2016, 2017, 2019
  • 1 birthing stool, 2020
  • 6 inkjet prints, 2017, 2018, 2019

(Installation shots and video stills below.)

Comments/Context: If there is one major trend to be singled out in contemporary photography over the past several years, it is the overdue opening of doors to new and previously overlooked voices. In overtly rebalancing away from the overwhelming dominance of the straight, white male gaze, the photography world is starting to embrace, celebrate, and actually show work made by artists representing a much wider range of genders, races, and sexual orientations. This wave of awakening has led to an infusion of freshness, change, and vitality unlike any we have seen in decades, as we collectively get educated about all of the artists and vantage points we have been missing.

This transformation of perspective has been particularly profound in photographic portraiture. Essentially, since the birth of the medium, we have seen more pictures of people made by straight, white males than by anyone else, and embedded in that gaze are a whole host of histories, desires, and prejudices which have variously skewed our understanding of the people being photographed. What is taking place now is an active rebalancing of those perspectives, where the seeing is being reclaimed by people from the communities being photographed. Instead of a straight, white male peering in from the outside, we now have more and more artists documenting their own worlds from the inside. What is emerging is a wholesale reimagining and flowering of what photography of and by women, or Black people, or members of the LGBT community can show us. Stripped of the legacy baggage, different (and arguably more nuanced) sensitivities are undeniably blossoming.

In the few years since she earned her MFA from ICP/Bard, Naima Green has been building up a range of thoughtful approaches to portraiture. In her 2018 show at the Arsenal Gallery in Central Park (reviewed here), Green photographed the increasingly visible creatives of color from New York in the city’s parks, placing them in leafy natural settings that cut against the stereotypes of urban Black and Latinx life. This museum show continues that line of artistic thinking, in a handful of discrete photographic efforts that find Green rethinking studio portraiture, self-portraiture, and more casual constructions, all in the name of seeing her sitters (and herself) with authenticity and care.

The centerpiece of this exhibit is Green’s project “Pur·suit”, a deck of 54 playing cards (the usual 52 plus two jokers) featuring portraits of queer women, as well as trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people. Inspired by Catherine Opie’s “Dyke Deck” from the early 1990s, Green updates and extends Opie’s project, filling in additional faces and broadening the inclusion effort. The installation here includes the entire physical deck (framed as a single piece) and a series of enlargements, which allow us to see the portraits at a much more engaging scale.

As a studio portraitist, Green is clearly a comforting presence, and that sense of supportive acceptance comes through in her sitters – both photographer and those being photographed can be who they are without fear of judgement. Green’s portraits were all made with essentially the same backdrop (an interlocked set of drapery, with silk, tulle, and pearled fabrics hung in layers of cream, light brown, and light blue), creating a template that fits the playing card motif well, but each sitter seems fully able to exert their own personality within these confines. Dai erupts in joyful laughter, Yunique is introspective, Emani & Tangina offer paired vulnerability and protection with a simple touch, and Sara Elsie & Amber exude quiet confidence. Smiles, poses, caresses, and other forms of gentle touch fill these pictures, the affirming comfort of actually being seen leading to genuine openness.

A group of Polaroids in the adjoining room provides evidence that Green has been refining her portraiture skills in home-based images for a number of years now. Many of the images place visitors to her Brooklyn living room on a gilt upholstered couch, where subjects alternately curl up, spread their arms wide, and even do a back bend. A second selection of Polaroids uses a tabletop mirror setup in that same room as a framework for a serial self-portraiture project. By changing the surrounding objects and the resonances they offer, as well as her own attire (or lack thereof), Green offers versions of herself, in an almost Cubist manner of aggregating multiple perspectives of a single person. She does a similar thing with a series of text based works that list all of her Google search tabs open at once – these works give us a snapshot of her brain at work, her interests and obsessions piling up to create another set of layered personalities within one self. She’s heading in intriguing directions with both of these efforts, without the facets of her personality being reduced to overly easy categories or definitions – it’s the simultaneous complexity and contradiction that give these works some punch. Like all of us, she is many nested within one, and these works start to unpack some of that wonderful human messiness.

Many of the other works in the show center in on the nuances of gesture and touch as a way into personality or connection. One beach composition is a particular standout, packing a dense amount of organized chaos into a single frame. Overlapped bodies and flapping flags organize the space, and multiple conversations and phone-checking sessions occur at once, the whole scene feeling magically ordered, at least for an instant. Another image of expectant parents Cynthia & Travis shows us only their interlocked hands around the pregnant mother’s belly, the nestled fingers offering a sense of tenderness and mutual support. A third image turns an on-the-floor conversation into something intimate, with feet and hands intermingled as if talking and listening.

As a museum venue, Fotografiska New York has opted for a more experiential approach to photography exhibitions, so Naima Green, Brief & Drenching is deliberately dramatized, with Green’s works generally spot lit against enveloping darkness. Such amplification tactics aren’t necessary (or even useful) in this case, as Green’s images have enough inherent interest to keep us thinking and feeling, regardless of the stylized packaging that now surrounds them. The danger of this kind of over-production is that the photography gets undermined by the entertainment – that doesn’t happen here, but the threat of distraction very much lingers in the dark shadows.

Seen as one statement, this is an uplifting show, mostly because it offers powerful optimism about what can happen when photographic seeing becomes more diverse. Green opens up several portraiture motifs worth exploring further here, and developing those ideas will almost certainly kick off still more new thinking. Given the clues provided in Green’s Google search habits, she’s clearly aware of (and being inspired by) photographic history, so she’s not innovating in a vacuum. All of this adds up to a photographic voice worth tracking, as Green is starting to put together the pieces that lead to artistic momentum.

Collector’s POV: Naima Green does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    I can’t stand the dark rooms at all their exhibitions, thank you for bringing this up. Hopefully someone from the Museum sees this. I understand they are looking for a different vibe but really . I spent $100 on a membership will certainly not renew next year if the viewing experience does not approve . I doubt that will bother them as I am not in their target audience.

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