Artists on Artists: Deana Lawson on Kerry James Marshall

Artists on Artists: Deana Lawson on Kerry James Marshall

good evening I'm Amanda hunt director of education and public programs here at MOCA thank you for joining us on the last week of Kerry James Marshall mastery we are thrilled to have dina lawson in town from new york with us this evening to offer her perspective as an artist on another incredible artist Kerry James Marshall we will look at a few select works that Dinah's picked out in the galleries this evening so just hang on it's a wild ride out here tonight just briefly I wanted to tell you a bit more about Deena for those of you who are just joining us or joining us in talking and thinking about Dena's practice she has worked at the center of contemporary photography for years and her truck style is truly signature sync singular excuse me you'd you have a signature style her photograph cowboy's is actually hanging in our permanent gallery just adjacent to where we are standing now and mochas just thrilled that she's part of our collection and our family and we can be talking and thinking about the work beyond Kerry James Marshall and beyond this evening as with Kerry's work Dena draws heavily from black cultural symbols and the black subject and by embedding them within similarly gorgeously colored compositions so I think you'll start to see a lot of alliances coming out through this conversation blossoms photos are arresting they draw you in and keep you there leaving you to wonder and unpack the narrative buts often assumed and never really known unless you're privy to the information Lawson has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work and teaches the subject at Princeton University as she has since 2012 she's held other appointments at RISD Cal arts here in LA California College of the Arts and the International Centre for photography and she's shown her work at too many museums to note but I will name a few the Copeland Museum of Art MoMA of course here at MOCA the underground museum the Studio Museum in Harlem I could go on and on and on Dena was one of the artists included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial and was the subject of a solo exhibition at kam st. Louis and has incredible projects coming up starting in January so please join me in welcoming Dena Lawson thank you it's an honor to be in California I wanted to extend a thank you to Amanda Hunt and to Helen Molesworth for bringing me out here it's an undeniable pleasure and honored to be able to talk about Harry James Marshalls work as a photographer who's also concerned with imaging blackness and relationship to desire relationships African diasporic traditions and symbols Kerry James Marshall work is definitely one of the most powerful I think images of our time and so what I wanted to do is actually focus on a few images that I'm drawn to and I'm not gonna really talk in terms about art historical sort of way of speaking the more so as a human as an artist picking up on certain themes or symbols in the work that I'm drawn to so I wanted to actually direct us to the first painting I wanted to look at which is title slow dance so we can go to the gallery and we'll get started so a lot of my work has to do with photographing people in their homes in their domestic space so it's natural that I would gravitate to this image title slow dance what I was instantly drawn to of course is the two central figures the woman embraces the male figure her eyes and her nails pick up on each other they're in an intimate space they're in their living room see there is an object the libation bottle on the table which represents patient voodoo practices and ceremonies there's also of the bay drawn on the bottom of the table I don't know if many of you are familiar with haitian i'm sarah ceremonies and boodle practices but that heart symbolizes earthly donto which is also connected to love and passion but I was interested as a domestic space it's this sort of liberated space where this couple has a space to embrace each other and to have this moment alone I'm also interested in terms of the levels of in which Kerry James Marshall images blackness in terms of skin in terms of unapologetically referencing skin and unapologetic unapologetically referencing hair and so forth I think in terms of why this image is important so much of thinking about how we I'm sorry one of the things that also signified the fact that they're in a comfortable space is that his shirt isn't tucked in he he's not wearing a belt that means he's comfortable in the space her eyes are not looking directly at the camera so this is not a self-conscious couple but her eyes look elsewhere into this other space which is what I'm interested in and so much of I think when we when I grew up I didn't see enough images of black people embracing and loving each other and I think what's important is that this is an image about black people fighting for you know anything or they're not fighting with each other but just the fact that they're loving each other is in and of itself an act of resistance and I would actually say that maybe even the this painting is just as radical as say some of the other paintings that references revolt and so forth so this is what I wanted to point out slow dance another thing that I thought of too was that it also references a particular generation I don't know how many of you actually have gone out to the club recently but you don't necessarily have this space to slow dance and when I was growing up my parents you know my aunts and uncles like the type of song that you would slow dance to an R&B song you usually hear at a wedding or you know in a juke joint but the fact that they are slow dancing in their living room means that they are not worried about anything and I think that's important as well so so with that said I wanted to move on to the now Turner revolt painting earlier I said that I think that just a painting of black love is just as radical as a painting of images that reflect revolt and resistance back in 2015 I was commissioned by Time magazine to photograph the Emanuel nine that happened in Charleston South Carolina and I was thinking about the history of even that church in particular Denmark Vesey who was the leader of a flavor vault that happened in in Charleston South Carolina and I was thinking about the relationship of the church in connection to being a space where people can gather in terms of planning and organizing revolts and so when that happened in terms of Denmark Vesey this was in 1921 and then nine years later you have nat turner who also felt as though he was called by God to to revolt and I think was so amazing about this images that you know often we see in terms of victims of black men as victims throughout history in terms of you think of the slave lynchings and the pictures of men hanging from trees you think you fast forward you go to the civil rights movement and you see black men getting and women attacked by dogs or it's so forth black people as victims even up into the state Eric garner and so forth this kind of reverses that in terms of it being a forbidden image where the victim in this case is the slave master who has his head chopped off by nat turner but so it's interesting to think about the love and the slow dance image nat turner and then even Harriet Tubman this kind of history of slavery ball and resistance is connected very much to protection of love and having that space to for black people to to have love but at the same time being enough being also in this history this narrative of resist one thing about the Harriet Tubman picture over here is that and even with the Stono group revolts is that the the resistances image and those who revolted our place with flowers on their heads which to me is a loving sign from Kerry James Marshall when we think of images of Harriet Tubman she's also often depicted in photographs as older but here she's younger and she's with her husband John so these you know this narrative of the resistance also involves the narrative of love and intimacy and protection all right so we wanted to move on to one other image and also if you if anyone wanted to respond while I'm talking feel free to raise your hand but I wanted to move on to another image which is we can actually go this way to vignette so in 2014 I traveled to dr congo to make an image titled the garden and it was an image based off of the Adam and Eve figure and they're situated in the bush in Congo connected with each other and this image title vignette I think has the same sort of impulse that I had in terms of two beautiful young black people running in communion with nature in communion with the natural world that I think was the same impulse that I had and it's interesting to look at the male figure he's wearing a necklace and it has a charm of the African symbol above our butterflies and birds and there's this again this space that's imagined that's protected of freedom maybe of liberation to have the space of bliss of ecstasy which i think is also very rare that I've seen in museums and particularly with black bodies but I think also to what was so interesting is that at the bottom right the bottom right of the painting you see the sidewalk which brings us back to the reality to now so this painting is very much about this other space but it's also about the here-and-now meaning this kingdom this paradise this eden is very much connected to reality in real life what this image made me think of going back to slow-dance in the song that played in the backdrop it actually made me think of a song by Marcia Griffiths I don't know if you're familiar with her but she was a Jamaican lovers rock singer she actually made the song Electric Slide if anyone knows but she also made the song titled dreamland which it made me think of it I just wanted to read the lyrics and maybe play that song so we could kind of meditate on this painting there's a land that I have heard about so far across the sea there's a land that I have heard about so far across the sea to have you on my dreamland would be like heaven to me to have you on my dreamland would be like heaven to me we'll live together on that dreamland and we'll have so much fun we'll live together on that dreamland and we'll have so much fun we'll get our breakfast from the trees we'll get our honey from the bees we'll take a ride on the waterfalls we'll count the stars in the sky and Shirley will never die and Shirley will never die and Shirley will never die Oh at a time that will be oh oh you just wait and see and Shirley will never die and Shirley will never die so I just want to play vignette of that song [Applause] [Applause] so the next painting is Gulfstream and with Dream Land and mine I'm not really sure the context of this painting it didn't have a wall text with it but when I looked at it it reminded me where I thought of the history of course of black people on boats the transatlantic slave trade and when I looked at the figure particularly the black figure he's off he's where I'm sorry the male figure he's wearing the same sort of garments as Nat Turner so I'm wondering if this is you know the pan-african is sort of this imagination of black people who have gotten free and who might be traveling back to Sierra Leone or to Liberia the way in which the landscape is imagined and pictured and rendered the sea is so blue the glitter the birds are flying it's almost like an animation in a sense but you get the sense of this leg moving forward this like progression which i think is what moves me to this painting did anyone imagine anything different in this in this image I just think about the boat painting from the second room about the pain of the Middle Passage and then see like the corniness almost of this one that just makes me think that it's a more like happy seeing yeah I wanted to say that I think it implies that you know he's a very fabulous artist that he can paint a landscape a seascape because when you think of seascapes you think of some of the you know Josiah some of the artists who are renowned and this is a very beautiful seascape the clouds the way he frames it the gulls the water the reflection the sunrise and his family is I mean they've arrived they are you know sailing or to the sunset or the sunrise so it's it's a gorgeous piece of work to me I appreciate your comments but yes I think there's something about overall his work that to me is very much about the future in terms of liberation and freedom aesthetics and also about how beauty is rendered for the black subject every subject in his work is beautiful and beauty means something beautiful even beauty of the black figure is political and so for me I guess I wanted to end on this note because it seems like looking forward to the future in terms of the imagination in terms of other artists who are also interested in figuration and depicting blackness and the potentiality to me the show is about the potential of what is capable in terms of black lives and in terms of rendering black lives and the different complex layers in a way so [Applause]


  • Rukia BlackBlazer says:

    I'm sick of black art that only depicts struggle.. Stop making black women & girls bodies the face of struggle, please & thanks. I WANT NO DEPRESSING SHIT, HANGING ON MY WALLS…. Do you all take commission work..? cause i know what i like & need.

  • Oneika Russell says:

    I'm so happy to hear Marcia Griffiths's music being contextualised in this way. Her music is amazing. Her rendition of Young Gifted & Black is also quite amazing. I also really like Deana Lawson's 'The Garden'.

  • Chrisdoper says:

    please fix your microphone 🙁

  • Bana Nana says:

    nice to hear an artist speak using everyday language rather than the sometimes alienating coded lingo of the art world. It is wise to do this because it engages the normal public as well

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