A gash in brown vinyl, stuffing and spring exposed under harsh glare: The picture, of the seat of a ragged chair in close-up, is the least human of Deana Lawson’s overwhelmingly human pictures in her just-opened exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Or is it? The cheap, careworn hide suggests many things — neglect, decay, unraveling. Its title suggests something else: She calls it “Portal”: a view in, a window to. And that, ultimately, is what Lawson’s work is all about.
“Portal” is one of the last pictures installed here, in a show of more than 50 of her works made over almost two decades. Modest and apart from the frank fleshiness her pictures often capture — in “Axis,” 2018, three women pose naked, synchronized in a prone pirouette on a gaudy floral-print rug; in “Living Room,” 2015, a nude woman stands with her arms resting tenderly on the shoulders of a shirtless man seated in a chair in front of her in a room filled with boxes — “Portal” both diverges from and encapsulates Lawson’s broader project.
Her pictures are overwhelmingly internal, private, interior, and intimate, often unsettlingly so — views into quotidian Black life, historically all but absent in the photographic canon. Just being there felt like intruding; in her later works, Lawson seemed to confirm that feeling, some pictures framed with mirrors so you can’t help but see yourself looking (”Axis” is one of those). Even so, the implication is less accusation than invitation. It’s a reminder that who you are informs what you see, a dynamic the pictures quietly reinforce with a determined air of mystery. Like any art worth your time, Lawson’s work leaves ample space — sometimes uncomfortably — for each of us to reconcile our own place in the everyday epic that is her pictorial world.
Her photographs, largely, are serene, contemplative, and rarely confrontational; they brim with detail and nuance, however outwardly frank. The work tucks neatly into various streams of art history, near and far. You can see in the epic scale and intricate stage-managing of Lawson’s pictures a nod to the centuries-old convention of European history painting, Great Works depicting Great Men — all of them white — turned to the service of ennobling everyday Black life.
More closely, you can draw a straight line to the Pictures Generation in the 1970s and ‘80s and artists like Jeff Wall, whose mannered, highly-posed photographs directly deconstructed history painting by rebuilding specific works for the camera as critique of both the canon and contemporary world itself. In Wall’s hands, Eugène Delacroix’s “The Death of Sardanapalus,” a scene of ferocious, Bacchanalian carnage and excess, became a ransacked flophouse bedroom.
A direct echo might be the work of Carrie Mae Weems, whose 1990 “The Kitchen Table Series” captured the artist under the glare of a pendant light at a table in a windowless room. Whether in an embrace with her husband, helping children with homework, having her hair done by a friend, or crumpled in solitary despair, the resolute interiority of the series spoke much the same language: of an everyday world hidden from sight. More than 30 years later, with rising calls for racial equity, such images are no less absent as an avalanche of media zeroes in on protest, flashpoint, calamity; the tenor of the moment freights her overarching project, slow and meditative as it is, with paradoxical urgency.
Lawson, based in New York, is the most recent winner of the $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize, administered by the Guggenheim Foundation (an exhibition tied to the prize debuted there in the fall). The ICA show, her first museum survey, captures the full arc of her work, revealing a breadth of priorities that span the specific to the general to the cosmic, often in the same room.
The show’s very first space pairs an enlarged, manipulated image from a 1970s hair product advertisement — Lawson has always plucked found imagery from advertising and media as part of her practice, maybe as fantasy-reality point-counterpoint — with “Ashanti,” a young woman seen from the back, nude and reclined on a bare mattress, a classical painting pose. Both pieces were made in 2005.
Across the room is “Dana and Sirius B,” 2021, a burst of hot pink in a dark celestial void — Sirius B, one of a handful of known “white dwarf” stars — is fitted with a teenage snapshot of Dana, the artist’s twin sister, in their shared childhood bedroom in Rochester, N.Y. It’s a gesture thick with evocative mystery; I loved it. I thought of ideas like Afrofuturism, a philosophy that imagines an enlightened world of Black liberation entwined with cosmic sci-fi leanings; the term wasn’t coined until the 1990s, but jazz icon Sun Ra’s 1974 movie “Space Is the Place” is one of its origin texts. In it, Sun Ra transports the Black race to liberation in the cosmos, leaving an earthly inferno behind.
Such out-there notions may seem far from the modest and shuttered interiors that form the bulk of Lawson’s work, but it helps set the broader stage. Her early works were conceived as standalones, often the product of moments of spontaneous inspiration — the artist would meet people she decided she wanted to photograph, sometimes while traveling, and quickly elaborate a narrative around them. But, as ICA curator Eva Respini writes in the catalog, Lawson sees the work on a continuum of a great interconnected Black family album of the diaspora, with all its fractures and traumas.
There’s a breathtaking moment about halfway in, where an edenic image of a woman and man, placidly naked in the deep green of a jungle glade, hangs alongside a string of snapshots of Lawson’s cousin visiting her partner, and the father of her children, in prison. The counterpoint is blunt: The pictures run down the wall and around the corner, years measured in the kids’ advancing height, frame by frame, all of them against the prison portrait wall, painted with a crude potted plant.
The idea of a paradise lost — or, more accurately, stolen and desecrated, the M.O. of centuries of colonial pillage — looms large here, and its fallout is all around. Lawson is acutely aware of the commodification of the flesh, particularly of Black women. A powerful strain in her work is to deftly subvert generalized objectification of Black men and women both. The second and third galleries contain deeply arresting works of Black women inhabiting an array of empowering gender roles: simultaneously nurturing and sensual, as in “Baby Sleep,” from 2009, in which a nude woman straddles her partner while their infant dozes nearby; or the utterly endearing “Wanda and Daughters,” 2009, showing an exhausted-looking mother leaning into the trunk of a tree with her two girls mirroring her pose, but with looks of contentment and glee.
Part of Lawson’s project is to find beauty and joy in the mundane, a noble cause in a marginalized pictorial realm. But it’s so much larger than that. The exhibition plies a high-low split that often feels profound. The burgundy wall-to-wall carpet that lines the galleries — and the smell of fresh carpet glue — anchors it in the realm of working-class rec rooms, while crystals placed at strategic intervals throughout the seven rooms aim toward transcendence and the stars. It could feel hokey; it doesn’t. Instead, such gestures build complexity and ambiguity — wholeness, really — into what, on first blush, can feel nervy and stark.
Not that Lawson has any fear of stark. “Nation,” a picture of two shirtless young men slumped on a vinyl couch, unnerves at first sight. One of them points at the camera — at you — with a finger extended like the barrel of a pistol. The other, slouched forward, his arms sleeved in tattoos, has a golden dental contraption wedged into his mouth that pulls his lips back from his teeth.
A small picture of a set of antique dentures, their false gums blackened with age, is wedged in the top of the mirrored frame, a pictorial indictment. Some speculate that George Washington, the so-called father of this “Nation,” may have worn dentures fitted with the teeth of enslaved people. The raw, unambiguous scorn of “Nation” makes it rare here, a departure for an artist so deftly graceful and sly. It reminds us that the portal Lawson’s work tears open has beauty and joy to offer but, most powerfully, truth.
Through Feb. 27, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org