Photography runs in Deana Lawson’s family—the artist grew up in Rochester, New York, where her mother worked as an administrative assistant at Eastman Kodak; her paternal grandmother cleaned George Eastman’s mansion. “In a sense I feel there’s this mythological influence” that directed her to photography, she said in a 2011 interview. ‘Mythological’ might be a fitting word to describe Lawson’s work, although the stories she tells are intimate rather than epic. Her photos take place in humble settings, often in bedrooms and living rooms. Using subjects who are usually strangers to enact staged scenes, Lawson keeps the interaction improvisational, giving the images an authentic feel. The result looks a bit like a family album, a bit like a dream—subjects enact Freudian dramas and origin stories or pose for provocative portraits, their bodies arranged in carefully specific poses that may or may not reference painting, dance or sex.
A solo show of recent work made in the U.S., Haiti, Jamaica, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until January 10 in the first installment of their biennial Ruttenberg Contemporary Photography Series. In one image, “The Garden, Gemena, DR Congo,” a nude couple sits in a lush landscape, the dark forest close behind them. Turning toward each other, the man places his hand on the woman’s belly. Adam and Eve come instantly to mind, and Africa’s place as the origin of the first people; the couple’s stiff pose against a jungle backdrop recalls Rousseau’s dense paintings. Despite these grand themes, the couple’s interaction feels genuine and tender. As she often does, Lawson balances allusions and specifics to make something compelling and new.