Escaping Hades: Deana Lawson’s “Portal”, 2017 at the Whitney Biennial

Every since visiting the Whitney Biennial last week I have made several attempts to write a Minus Plato post about my experience. After several false starts, I kept coming back to one work: Portal, 2017 by Deana Lawson. It is not that at the time of my visit this large photograph of a ripped leather chair or couch stood out amid the other works in the large gallery that Lawson shared with the paintings of Henry Taylor. But the more I thought about this work, the more I was convinced that it contained a secret that, if revealed, could point the way out of my inability to do justice to this timely and controversial exhibition in a Minus Plato post. So, let us start by looking at Portal:

The first question that Lawson’s photograph raises is what exactly is the relationship between the title and what we are looking at? One answer is obviously the deep gouge in the furniture, a black hole that could lead who knows where. But on reflection, I started to wonder if the portal of the title could be the reproduced image of a lily to the top left of the composition. I felt like this choice relied as much on the photographer’s use of color, as on the more ethical questions of the ugly scar of damaged furniture and natural beauty, a choice that appeared to be played out on a broader field in several other of Lawson’s works in the exhibition. For example, consider Nicole, 2016:

On the one hand the portal of this work could be found in the form of the naked woman, provocatively stretching on a rug, leveling the viewer with her piercing gaze. Yet, as in many of Lawson’s works, representations of Black identity bridge the mundane setting of the family portrait and the heroic beauty of triumphant individuality. This works here by how, bursting out of this seductive moment and from the brown and black color-field of her body, the rug, the flooring and the couch, at the top center of the image are the vibrant colors of a pile of children’s toys, pushed to the side of the room. Like the picture of the lily on the chair or couch of Portal, these toys pull us of the world of the scene in an unsettling balance between the erotic and the domestic. Now, look at Ring Bearer, 2016:

As with Nicole, we have the muted brown and black tones and the domestic scene, withing which the portal that is inviting us through is the touching moment of intimate pride between a grandmother and her grandson, with the latter dressed the part of ring bearer. Again, Lawson’s use of color-contrast offers an alternative portal in the form of the red and purple heart the boy is clutching to. Of course there is a less jarring contrast than in Nicole, but when juxtaposed with the backdrop of proud family portraits and cabinets of heirlooms, this garish and temporary object of commercial love – the heart-pillow – seems to distract from a more fundamental and enduring love that bridges the generations. Thinking about Lawson’s use of color as a way to offer contrasting points (or portals) for our attention in her work, brought me to a dialogue that she had had with Henry Taylor back in a 2012 issue of BOMB magazine. Towards the end of the interview the artists focus their attention on their respective uses of color. Here is an extended quotation (accompanied by a few installation shots of the juxtaposition of Tayler and Lawson’s work at the Biennial):

DL How do you think about color in your paintings?

HT When I’m painting from life the colors seem more alive and apparent, because it’s real—I mean, whatever real is. If I were to do something from a photograph, then I only try to depict what’s there and that seems more limited. I could work from a photograph for hours and hours, but I can work from life in minutes. A human being is never in black and white, even if I’m colorblind. Right now I’m looking out my window and I see shades of green, and then something may be reflecting onto that green from somebody’s apartment. So you get blue in there. (in a high-pitched voice) “Why you got blue in the muthafucka?” I say, “Shit man, there was a blue light over there. But you just don’t see the blue light.”

DL Brown skin tones are important to me. I often think of Carrie Mae Weems’s titles in the “Colored People” series, in which she names the nuances of black and brown bodies and undertones, titles like Blue Black Boy, Golden Yella Girl, and Magenta Colored Girl. I try to glorify brown skin within the print and bend toward specificity of skin tones. I also tend to get caught up over what I perceive to be “real” color as you mentioned, and memory color. Was that pink towel a red pink or a magenta pink? Was Nikki’s shiny black weave a cool black or warm black? And then regardless of what it actually was, what does it need to be for the sake of the print? I can nitpick over colors in a print for hours and days. James Welling told me recently that my prints “looked wet.” I took that as a compliment; it meant to me that the print itself was alive and present. I thought of my prints sweating, like skin.

HT With color, I tend to go for what I feel—that’s when the subconscious comes into play, when you’re not really in control. I may be thinking about weight and how something recedes or comes forward and of course I know what cobalt blue does as opposed to other types of blue. So I make those kinds of decisions, but for the most part, I try to find absolute freedom in painting. I want to be taken over! I’m making too many decisions in real life already, paying rent, doing this and that. When I’m painting, I want to be free. Ohio Players baby, you know?

At this part in their dialogue, Lawson and Taylor move away from color and focus more on this idea of freedom. While she admits to feeling free in her travels to make work, Lawson admits to feeling constrained by ‘the photographic work — it’s gidgets and gadgets and lights and tripods and shit.’ In response to this, Taylor notes how he adds elements to his intuitive compositions that somehow parallel these constraints of Lawson’s technical practice. Their conversation ends as follows:

HT I swear to God, some questions are just hard to answer. I think in my compositions, I can be intuitive and at the same time start putting in dragons, like Goya did, or Max Beckmann. You start to tell a story that might be about Hercules—myths! You start grabbing things because you want it to feel a certain way.

DL It’s interesting that you mention myths. A constant puzzle for me as a photographer is how to depict the visible and how it connects to the unseen.

HT Sometimes things can be really dark, like when I was painting these horses in black … I know it had to do with death. So sometimes I mute the palette, but I’m not opposed to yellow sneaking in there. A little baby may walk into your studio and accidentally bump into something, and next thing you know, your painting is gonna change.

It is this appearance of the topic of myth amid the discussion of color, race and their different practices of painting and photography, that brings us back to Portal.

If you look at the very top of the image, you will see that Lawson has allowed the technical information of the print to remain visible – a series of letters, numbers etc. What if this self-reference to the photographic process, and not the hole in the couch nor the picture of flowers, was the true portal of the work? Remember it was Hercules’ last task to steal Cerberus from that portal to end or portals – the gates of Hades. Only after such a death-defying task could he be made a god himself. In a comparable way, Lawson’s Portal brings attention to photography as the ideal art form to puzzle out the unseen in the visible. Amid all the controversy at the Biennial (yes, you know what I’m referring to – Dana Shutz’s Open Casket), what Lawson’s work reminds us is that, by paying attention, we too become pieces to the puzzle. The task of art is to offer a portal or portals to escape all manner of prejuducial hells (racist, sexist, homophobic, elitist) by the very act of freedom contained in its making.

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