Deborah Willis: In Pursuit of Beauty: Imaging Closets in Newark and Beyond at Shine Portrait Studio

BY Diana McClure, May 1, 2018

Deborah Willis, Cathy Lenix Hooker, Red Blazer, 2018. Courtesy Shine Portrait Studio

Deborah Willis’s latest exhibition offers a subtle, populist commentary on the democratization of style, while also speaking to the politics of visibility and invisibility.

Organized by Curator-in-Residence Kalia Brooks, the exhibition is on view through December 21 at Shine Portrait Studio at Express Newark, a former department store and the site of photographer James Van Der Zee’s first commercial job in 1911.

Van Der Zee’s legacy as a prominent African-American portrait photographer and Willis’s stature as a scholar of African-American photography – she was also the driving force behind an international series of conferences on black portraiture from 2013 to this year, hosted by New York University in conjunction with Harvard University – frame an elevated conversation on fashion.


Deborah Willis, Clothes Horse, 2018. Courtesy Shine Portrait Studio

A conceptual investigation of the performance of identity, self-fashioning, and the metaphor of the “closet” underlies the curatorial intent of the exhibition. The accessibility of the work, a result of Willis’s choice of subjects, content, and materials (archival pigment prints and low-tech adhesive vinyl), opens it up to a broad audience, in keeping with the studio’s mission of community inclusion.

Despite the absence of the body within Willis’s portraits, her photographs make visible a rich mix of cultural influencers. The work reveals a fascinating story of lives interwoven into the fabric of Newark through photographs that include: the storefront window of a clothing boutique owned by renowned local fashion designer Marco Hall; a demure black lace dress belonging to Newark’s own “Glambassador” and author of 100 Things To Do In Newark Before You Die, Lauren Craig; the attire of the dapper former director of Harlem’s SchomburgCenter for Research in Black Culture, Khalil Gibran Muhammad; and the ties of Wayne Winborne, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. Overall, Willis’s portraits accent the humanity of her subjects by offering a well-worn and well-loved material counterpoint to mass media’s clinical, aspirational and retouched presentation of fashion as a capitalist commodity.