Art Review by Claudia Berlinski
The exhibition “Picturing People” by Dawoud Bey is all photographic portraits – 50 to be exact, spanning over 30 years. It is currently showing at the McDonough Museum of Art, on the campus of Youngstown State University. This exhibition was organized by The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, and features selections from seven different bodies of work by the artist.
I find portraits to be difficult. They are challenging to shoot. They are challenging to sit for. They are challenging to view, especially when in numbers. At first the sheer quantity of images in this exhibition is it a bit off-putting for me. Where do I begin to look, how do I begin to understand each group and it’s nuances? I desperately wish for statements, by the artist or the curator, to accompany each segment of the show. One needs to create perspective, to understand the importance of each group of photos in its broader context.
Despite my struggle with portraits, I find many of the pieces in this show to be very good – some are fantastic, beautiful, empowering and enlightening. But, it takes some time and patience on the part of the viewer to weed through the volume, and to do some research about the backstories. The McDonough staff smartly provides a computer loaded with Vimeo and YouTube videos of Bey speaking about his work in a variety of venues and interviews. I utilize these resources to make order of Bey’s work, and to understand the significance of it. The average viewer may not – one lecture alone is 90 minutes long.
Dawoud Bey has always been interested in the human subject, and made a commitment to producing photographic portraiture decades ago. He wants to describe the human experience, elevate his subjects, and try to create a connection between the subject and the viewer. In some ways the process of interacting with the subjects is as much the artwork as the finished piece. His work can be compared to that of Kehinde Wiley, who also makes subjects of people he meets on the street. Unlike Bey, Wiley makes his point by embellishing his paintings with lush colors, patterns and art historical references that contrast his subjects and their world. Bey’s work is stripped bare of that and requires more effort on the part of the viewer.
In talking about his work, Dawoud Bey repeatedly references gesture and psychic presence. This is quite clear in many pieces, particularly the larger format works included in “Polaroid Diptychs and Triptychs”, “Street Portraits”, and “Class Pictures”.
“Street Portraits” (both black & white and color) are shot with a large format camera, which takes a great deal more time to use than a 35mm. This offers the photographer an opportunity to be intentional about directing the subject. It also produces a larger print. Dawoud Bey explains in his lectures that the combination of these factors produces a portrait with a greater physical presence, and engages the viewer more assertively with the ‘gaze’ of the subject. This is the strength of these pieces. As the viewer we are unable to turn away, as we might on the street. We cannot ignore these people, they are looking right at us.
“Polaroid Diptychs and Triptychs” moves away from the others in that the ‘gaze’ of the subject rarely comes into play. The subject’s eyes are nearly always averted, and they appear to be lost in the moment. Each piece seems to be completely about the gesture in a rather lovely way. We’re able to examine the subject’s hands and hair and features intimately although, or because, the scale is quite large with each framed print about 20” x 24”. Bey talks about the paintings of Rembrandt as an influence upon this series, and yes, the reference is clearly present. They are lyrical and poetic and composed gracefully with soft lighting and color. He also suggests that they imply a passing of time, and this is also certainly true. The images are comprised of multiple prints sometimes arranged in a grid and sometimes in succession. The groupings create repetition, overlap and the sense that the artist spent a great deal of time with each person.
“Class Pictures” is the most powerful body of work featured in this exhibition. Again, the scale of these prints is a factor in the viewer’s engagement, with each portrait sized at 40” x 50”. Aside from that, you cannot help but to linger upon the faces of these students, each owning their strengths and weaknesses in an eloquent and admirable way.
This project began as a residency, and was continued in multiple cities. Bey worked at bringing together groups of high school students from very different educational backgrounds. He engaged them together in a variety of activities, and eventually shot their portraits in their own high school environments. Each student wrote an autobiographical statement. This text is included alongside their photo. By giving these students a voice, Dawoud Bey is trying to make the work even more compelling. The artist feels that he is creating a snapshot of the American teenager, sans stereotypes. For me, they are the most emotive pieces in the exhibition, and create the strongest impact. These portraits help us to recall the days when we feel vulnerable and misunderstood, and are desperate to be recognized for our own truths.
This exhibition runs through March 7, 2015.
Claudia Berlinski is an artist who teaches at Youngstown State University. She enjoys photographing clouds and dabbles in printmaking/collage. She previously wrote art reviews for Dialogue magazine which was a vital and vibrant print media source for the visual arts in the Midwest. You can contact Claudia at email@example.com.