The space of The Underground Museum might be what you expect, but it might not be. It is housed in an unassuming storefront on a busy street in Arlington Heights, Los Angeles. As visitors enter, they appear in a small museum gift store, with the usual items expected there: books about featured and past artists, some trinkets, and a sign-in registry for the museum’s mailing list. Just past the entry door and counter is another door. This is a carved wooden door, more like an ornate front door, if memory serves correctly, and here is the true entrance to the museum space and to Deana Lawson’s exhibit, Planes.
Upon entry, viewers are greeted with an introductory wall text that both situates Lawson’s practice and photographs, and places her work at the center of the Museum’s objectives and baseline theology. First, it describes how Lawson stages her work, while still maintaining (and creating even) a deep sense of intimacy:
“Her meticulously staged photographs and installations became gathering places for radiant vessels everywhere. Her images proving the beauty and brilliance of their existence. Many of her subjects were strangers she encountered on the street. She put them in familiar domestic spaces, and surrounded them with sentimental artifacts, some of which she collected throughout her own travels, and some that belonged to the vessels themselves. She hoped viewers could see that beyond the surface of her photographs were multi-dimensional planes that connected time and space…”
Next, the wall text situates her personally, as part of the grand plans of The Museum’s late founder Noah Davis:
“In 2009, Noah Davis served as a juror for a prestigious art prize. One notable submission was by a photographer named Deana Lawson. Noah told everyone he knew about Lawson’s singular vision—which combined a painter’s sense for spatial composition with an ethnographer’s curiosity of the human condition—and the two artists soon became close friends. When Noah founded The Underground Museum, one of the earliest projects he envisioned for the space was a solo exhibition of Lawson’s worlds. This is us building from his blueprint. Love, The UM”
Right away, viewers are confronted with two deeply intimate pieces of information to carry through the show — that Deana Lawson creates personal photographic compositions, blending complete strangers with personal, domestic interiors in order to create something that is at once compelling, reminiscent, haunting, and relatable. We are also confronted with the museum founder’s developing vision for the space he ultimately only had about one year to enjoy, as the museum opened in 2012 just a year before his passing. This is heavy information to take in, and with it, viewers feel the gravity and importance of Lawson’s show to the museum itself.
Lawson, of course, lives up to this imperative and more.
Her photographs are monumental and larger than life. The walls are painted a deep purple lavender that already makes the space feel smaller and warmer. This feeling of personal space, of devotion, and of familiarity is heightened in little ways throughout — small print photographs line the corners where two walls meet. These go all the way from the ground to the ceiling, reminiscent of the wall of a teenager, desperate to keep cherished images of friends, families, and celebrities close. These are a mixture of photos ranging from feeling like old family prints from photo albums to anthropological, political, and pop culture prints from magazines. Some examples include well-known images like black Civil Rights protestors sitting on the prior-to white seats at a lunch counter, of Amy Winehouse, of miners, of Hitler, of a Maasai woman, of Kurt Cobain, and of more personal scenes like what appears to be a brother and sister at home and some wedding photos.
While each of Lawson’s large photographs take up almost a wall in its entirety or about six feet in width, these smaller moments in the photo-collaged corners are suggestive of a more quiet and subtler intimacy that her larger works sling at you with a welcoming force.
Greg Tate wrote of Lawson that she commands space in a distinctive way. “Drawing the spectators eye to how people command space within the frame, how they proclaim ownership of selfhood before the camera is a recurring motif. Her work seems always about the desire to represent social intimacies that defy stereotype and pathology while subtly acknowledging the vitality of lives abandoned by the dominant social order.”
Works like Barbara and Mother (2017), Nicole (2016), and Brother and Sister Soweto (2017) portray up close and personal scenes of sitters in domestic spaces that feel unique, personal, momentous, and touching. Through such works, Lawson explores representations of Blackness, identity, and collective, shared memory. All of these works present people in the private sphere of the home — whether showing a mother and daughter smiling happily and proudly in a tight hallway of a home; or showing Nicole, seductively portrayed in a living room, looking up directly to meet the camera’s gaze, as she lies naked on a carpet, with the pastel colors of a child’s dollhouse and toys in the near distance; or whether we see a young girl (assumedly the title’s sister) with her face buried bashfully into an older brother’s hip and he poses for the camera.
Lawson’s work was featured on a recent September cover of GARAGE magazine, in a photograph she took of Rihanna. She presents this music icon as a reclining figure wearing a bright turquoise taffeta blouse and an equally bold yellow satin skirt. Though Rihanna is posed lying on the floor against a brown wingback chair, she is not like any reclining woman one might be accustomed to seeing in paintings of the past — she is embodied and present, staring straight at the viewer and removing any passivity from the entire frame of the image.
Of this cover shoot, Paige Katherine Bradley wrote, “perhaps only Deana Lawson would photograph our queen nonchalantly lounging in a mysteriously bare bones flat and get pictures worthy of a royal portrait. Lawson is an American photographer, which sounds straightforward enough, but what you need to know is that she is blowing up and eliding any divisions that would try to categorize her luminous portraiture. In other words, Deana Lawson is not only the photographer of the moment, but of the future.”
Indeed. Through her photographs and the smaller, personal space of the Underground Museum, Lawson creates a timeless space and subject for viewers to enjoy and explore. Deana Lawson’s Planes runs through February 17th, 2019 at The Underground Museum.
An LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ellen C. Caldwell reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of Ms. Caldwell’s work, visit eclaire.me.