Deana Lawson’s Intimate Fictions

BY Catherine Wagley, November 4, 2018

In Deana Lawson’s 2017 photograph Nikki’s Kitchen, a woman kneels on an old wooden chair, hand under chin, staring at the camera with some defiance. She wears a leopard print jersey jumpsuit that falls off her shoulder and seductively contrasts with the Victorian wallpaper that only partially covers the walls behind her. Lawson made the photo with the help of her longtime best friend, Dana Brown, and in an interview published in Lawson’s new Aperture monograph, video artist Arthur Jafa – also a friend – asks about working with Brown. “How essential is that to your methodology and what you get?”

Lawson answers by talking about Nikki and the leopard jumpsuit. She and Brown arrived at Nikki’s house, and Nikki refused to wear the suit — it was too small. Lawson, whose whole plan hinged on the outfit, recalls, “I had no idea what to say or do in that moment. But I gave Dana a look from across the room and she understood.” Ten minutes later, Nikki was dressed. 

This is not exactly the answer Jafa sought. “That’s a functional thing,” he responds. “I’m more interested in psychologically.”

“Psychologically, it’s a space of comfort,” says Lawson. “I feel like some of the weight is off me when I have her.” Lawson can do the art-historical reference dance as suavely as the next MFA-wielding artist – at one point in the conversation, she speaks about sexual perversity in work by painters Otto Dix and Balthus – but she mostly doesn’t. Instead, she talks about relationships with other people. Her interest in how people relate merges in her work with her highly honed aesthetic so that, while not exactly collaborations, her photographs balance her subjects’ sensibilities with her own. It’s this balancing act that makes her photographs arresting, because each new image invites into the frame someone else’s individuality. Not every photographer does this. Often subjects bend, sometimes in spite of themselves, to the image-maker’s vision (think of Sally Mann and her children; Annie Leibovitz and her actresses). 

Lawson’s eponymous Aperture monograph, published in September, has a deep mauve cover with the artist’s name across it in gold lettering. It feels regal, with wide, nearly square pages. Lawson, who began photographing as a Penn State sophomore and graduated with an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2004, is prolific, so the book’s 91 plates represent an intentional edit. The earliest photograph in the book, Emily and Daughter, 2002, is a washed-out, grainy, and water-damaged found photograph of a mother and daughter in a photo studio – an anomaly that points to the artist’s interest in found family photos. But the earliest one Lawson took – a 2007 photograph of an adolescent girl, nude but for a transparent nylon bodysuit, standing next to a seated mother and baby – fits cohesively in with Lawson’s oeuvre, as does every other plate. Again and again, her sense of stagecraft merges with the deportment of her subjects, who may or may not actually be who they appear to be, to create portraits of intimacy that usually mine some over-photographed trope (the in-love couple, the downtrodden single parent, the heroic mother), then twists it just enough to make us look longer. 

The Jafa interview, an easy, poetic conversation, comes at the end of the book, and an essay by novelist and critic Zadie Smith opens it. Aperture commissioned Smith’s essay, but it also ran in the May 7 New Yorker, where its lyricism and vagueness seemed out of place in comparison to the publication’s typical, deeply reported profiles. In the monograph, though, the essay makes perfect sense, setting an open-ended rhythm and tone. Smith describes Lawson’s work as “prelapsarian” (before the fall, a world in which working-class black Americans can be gods) and refers to her photographs as “portals” between “our finite lives and our long cultural and racial histories,” while situating her within a sprawling net of references: Cindy Sherman, Zora Neale Hurston, Caravaggio, Buck Ellison, and Beyoncé. She also works in Lawson’s romantic photo-nerd origin story: the artist grew up in Rochester, N.Y.; her mother worked at Kodak, her father at Xerox, and, before all that, her grandmother cleaned George Eastman’s home. 

Smith’s is one of only two lengthy critical framings of Lawson’s work available, the other being an essay by Steven Nelson, commissioned and then killed for this very monograph. Nelson published the essay on Hyperallergic this summer, along with a reflection on his failed attempt to publish it first with Aperture and then with Frieze, both of which objected to the space he gave Lawson’s portraits of Charleston shooting survivors for Time magazine, as did her gallerists. “Deana’s editorial/commercial work is separate from her fine art practice,” wrote her Chicago representative, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, refusing Frieze’s request for images. It’s hard now to imagine Nelson’s essay in this book – his has angles, edges, and conclusions, while Smith’s sentences stream out as if trying to channel Lawson’s own mix of calculation and seduction. But Nelson helpfully frames Lawson’s work as “biomythography,” a term critic Audre Lorde invented, to describe, as Nelson puts it, “narration that exists at the meeting place of biography, history, and myth.” Lawson straddles fiction and documentary, her compositional choices acknowledging real situations while also constructing alternate constellations, pregnant with possibility, in which subjects have more agency than they might otherwise. 

For Seagulls in Kitchen, 2017, Lawson asked two relative strangers to pose as lovers. They assented, standing in the kind of imperfect, working-class interior Lawson loves to use, with beige linoleum, a discolored fridge, flowy curtains, walls in need of fresh paint, and two brass seagulls mounted near the door. He buries his head in her hair; she reaches back to gently touch his arm, while leveling her gaze at the viewer. Camera-facing poses like this one sometimes recall the work of Diane Arbus – such as the bench-sitting Couple,1965 – but while Arbus portrayed her subjects as curiosities endemic to their environment, Lawson never does. Her subjects radiate a specificity that makes their familiar environments seem as transcendent as they are. 

I first saw Lawson’s work in person at the Underground Museum in Los Angeles in a 2015 exhibition called Non-Fiction, about the black body’s relation to historical narratives. Painter Noah Davis, who founded the museum in L.A.’s West Adams neighborhood with artist Karon Davis, his wife, had curated the exhibition before his too-soon death at age 34 in 2015. Lawson, whose first Los Angeles solo exhibition, Planes, opened at the Underground in mid-October, and is on view through February 17, 2019, made more sense there than most of the other artists sharing wall space with her (Theaster Gates, David Hammons, Robert Gober). Like the museum, always meant to be of the neighborhood, Lawson’s work foregrounds relationships and real locations over conceptual strategies or art-historical references, which are present but secondary. 

Writer Janet Malcolm once made a distinction, in a 2011 interview, between those for whom the physical world and its details contain everything, versus those who live in a realm of ideas. Lawson belongs to the former group. Every outfit, object, costume, and accessory combines to make her photographs work, which is why reviewers repeatedly call her art “highly staged” – not because it feels contrived but because it’s completely deliberate. The worn, lived-in rooms that attract Lawson resemble in some ways the settings Nan Goldin, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and, of course, Arbus sought out in their social portraits. But Goldin, especially, could not help making such spaces seem desperate, temporary, and unsustainable, whereas Lawson treats even the grittiest settings as perfect and well appointed. In Soweto Queen, 2017, the remote controls, abandoned keys, and stained towel on the blue couch feel as luxurious as a shag rug in a T Magazine spread. In Sons of Cush, 2017, a distracted infant in her father’s arms wears a silky blue dress that matches the Chips Ahoy container to her left and the blue tape holding foil over the window above her. The found objects, folk art, and stained mattresses in Hotel Oloffson Storage Room, 2015, hold no less sway than art in a collector’s foyer might.  

At the Underground, Lawson painted the walls mauve, like the cover of her monograph, and included installations of found photographs, largely of black families, that she compulsively buys at flea markets. She also projected footage filmed in South L.A., giving a glimpse into the wide-open observational hunger that ultimately feeds her carefully controlled and defiantly beautiful photographs.     

—Catherine Wagley writes about art in Los Angeles. She is a contributing editor at Momus and regularly contributes to ARTNews, Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles and other publications.