Deana Lawson’s current exhibition at the Art Institute consists of 14 photographs that, according to the AIC member magazine, are designed to propel dialogue by “investigating black culture and speaking to the ways in which the body can channel personal, social, and political histories.” However, the exhibition lacks cohesion, and largely fails to produce much that is worth more than a passing glance.
The photographs vary in style, from live action to staged portraits, from color to black and white, and include found photos as well as originals. At the front entry of the gallery, the most striking piece in the collection presents itself: a large color portrait of a naked man and woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo entitled The Garden. The couple lies in repose, touching but without eye contact, and the man has his hand placed over the woman’s rounded belly. They are surrounded by green fauna, and the sense of innocence mixed with primal instincts of lust and possession is palpable and engulfing.
The remaining portraits include a pregnant woman with her belly poking through a sateen gown, a Haitian woman caught in a riot, and a woman holding a freshly slaughtered bird on her head, her face covered in its blood. Collectively they do little to fulfill the promise that Lawson makes in The Garden. The mix of styles is jarring, and the portraits feel forced in their staging. Either a focus in style or subject matter is warranted, or perhaps the breadth of Lawson’s vision is too far reaching to be adequately examined in so small a collection. v