Deana Lawson’s Sublime Visions of Black Communion

Deana Lawson, “Chief” (2019), pigment print (© Deana Lawson, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles)

In thermodynamics, entropy measures degrees of randomness as energy transforms into its various stages. Contrarily, centropy is defined by a mutation towards order. In cosmology, we might apply these concepts to distinguish between those facets of life that can be explained through reason and those that remain opaque, left up to spiritual questioning. In Centropy, her solo exhibition at the Guggenheim, artist Deana Lawson, the 2020 winner of the museum’s prestigious Hugo Boss Prize, collapses this divide between the tangible and intangible. Portals to the otherworldly, Lawson’s grand-scale, carefully staged photographs capture sublime moments of communion, often in interior spaces, that reveal the divine in the secular.

To usher us into the mythic realm, Lawson’s work manipulates the spacious gallery itself. Halos of light, bouncing off of mirrored frames, aggrandize the subjects of each photograph. Meanwhile, brilliant crystals, which shine from each corner of the gallery, refract streams of light from these luminous frames. At the center of the gallery, the work “Torus” (2021), a hologram so subtle I missed it upon first glance, reflects an iridescent prism of light and as I peer through it, Lawson’s surrounding photographs glimmer with nostalgia, like images uncovered from a family photo album.

Deana Lawson, “Young Grandmother” (2019) (© Deana Lawson, image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles)

Often defaced with markings, shadowed with fading pigments, and layered with holograms, these photographs refuse to be rooted in linear time. In “Deleon? Unknown” (2020), feverish scribbling interrupts an intimate scene. Here, assertive striations slice across the body of a woman who wraps her arms across her chest as she sleeps atop velvety pillows. Entombed in her stomach, a hologram, revealing a beaming gold object and cast in mystical green light, suggests an unseen presence, perhaps visiting the quiet moment.

This surreal timelessness lingers in enduring smiles, worn by the women in “Emily and Daughter“ (2015). As if divining the subjects, a cascade of white light spots, dotted with lilac and sepia-toned streaks descends from above. Lawson obscures the gazes of the two Black women. Their bright smiles, twinkling beneath hazy pigments, ultimately render them immortal and the moment captured, infinite.

We are abruptly transported back in time and reminded of exploitative histories of Black labor in “Black Gold (‘Earth turns to gold, in the hands of the wise,’ Rumi)” (2021). Here, a small hologram of a Black man standing in a field holding a shovel (presumably a share-cropper), is embedded in a photograph of a Black man who confidently presents several gold chains and watches before the camera, as if for sale. Though the contemporary man’s self-assured gaze proposes unwavering agency, the distressing and painful juxtaposition prompts reflection on the persistent burden and oppressive force of the market driven economy, which continues to exhaust Black daily life.

Installation view, The Hugo Boss Prize 2020: Deana Lawson, Centropy, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2021 (© Deana Lawson; photo byDavid Heald)

“Daenare” (2019), likewise thrusts you into the grim present day. A nude Black woman reclines against the steps in her home. I am lost in the limitlessness of her defiant gaze, which she shoots back daringly at the photographer, disrupting the long history of submissive female nudes. Suddenly, a house arrest anklet clasped firmly against her skin tears me away from her hypnotic, self-determined stare, whisking me into an unequivocally harsh reality — one governed and surveilled by the carceral system.

Still, the exhibition’s trance-inducing pace persists. Devoid of human subjects, “Black Horizons” (2020), and “Dana and Sirius B” (2021) image celestial ephemera, submerged in the eternal blackness of space. The mesmerizing works help crystallize each of Lawson’s subjects in Black diasporic pasts and futures that are unaffected by earthly restraints and oppressions.

Lawson aptly refers to her process of selecting her subjects as “time-stopping.” She is drawn to people that feel familiar — from this lifetime, previous ones, or those yet to be lived. With her masterful eye for the imperceptible, Lawson, in this radiant exhibition, illuminates the spectacular in the everyday.

Installation view, The Hugo Boss Prize 2020: Deana Lawson, Centropy, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2021 (© Deana Lawson; photo byDavid Heald)

The Hugo Boss Prize 2020: Deana Lawson, Centropy continues through October 11 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition is organized by Katherine Brinson and Ashley James. 

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