A peculiar object sits on a plinth at the center of Deana Lawson’s new exhibition at the Guggenheim: it’s a hologram of a torus, or a geometric ring formed by a circle rotated around a central axis. Stand in front of it and you might see a bagel, but walk around and it comes alive like something otherworldly—a portal, perhaps, perpetually rotating in on itself.
A spectral sculpture made from the same technology that brought Tupac to Coachella is perhaps the last thing you’d expect from Lawson, an artist known for her naturalistic portraits of diasporic Black culture that draw on the visual language of documentary and vernacular photography. But there it is, very much at the heart of “Centropy,” the show awarded to the artist along with the 2020 Hugo Boss Prize.
That was Lawson’s choice, said Katherine Brinson, one of two Guggenheim curators who organized the show. During the installation process, “Deana spoke about how, in relationship to the photographs surrounding it, [the torus] becomes a force that both draws on and reinforces the power and the potential represented in her subjects,” the curator explained.
There’s a lot of power to go around. Lawson’s subjects—all Black people in domestic settings—radiate it.
That has a lot to do with the artist’s careful staging, which recalls the stuff of both family photo albums and art-historical masterpieces, and her eye for light. In a 2018 New York profile—one of the most memorable pieces of photographic writing in recent years, to be sure—author Zadie Smith spoke of how Lawson’s lens liberates her subjects from the earthly constraints of capitalism and colonial histories, turning them into gods.
“Deana Lawson’s work is prelapsarian—it comes before the Fall. Her people seem to occupy a higher plane, a kingdom of restored glory, in which diaspora gods can be found wherever you look: Brownsville, Kingston, Port-au-Prince, Addis Ababa,” Smith wrote. “Outside a Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, just keeping your head above water, struggling. But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen.”
The torus isn’t the only hologram in the show; you’ll also find them embedded in several large-scale photographs. For those who have followed Lawson’s career, the juxtaposition may come as a surprise. But the two media inform each other, said Ashley James, who curated the exhibition with Brinson.
“The holography allows us to reflect back on the photographs,” James explained. The former asks us to consider how the latter “can both reflect the real and approximate the superreal. I think that’s a question that guides the work.”
Both holography and photography also require harnessing the power of light, a central concern of the artist—for reasons beyond those that occupy most photographers’ minds.
Light, for Lawson, is “an index of the divinity of human beings,” Brinson said. In other words, it alerts the viewer to the presence of a spiritual force. “There’s a relationship between what is visible and what is unseen. Although the images might show an everyday environment with the familiar contour of domestic life, there are often what the artist calls portals that indicate the presence of this more spiritual realm.”
Brinson points to the little halo on the wreath of roses above a woman and her three grandchildren in Young Grandmother (2019), for instance, or the billowing curtains behind a crowned, seated man in Chief (2019).
“When I make a picture, it is about being in communion or trying to access an unseen truth,” Lawson said in a short film produced for the exhibition.
“Centropy” takes its name from the thermodynamic theory of how particles are stimulated into a system of organization by electricity. It’s how the chaos of matter is codified into life, some say. In Lawson’s world, a similar phenomenon takes place.
“I think for Deana there’s a metaphoric relevance of centropy in the organizing gaze of the camera as her medium,” Brinson said. It’s also about “bringing renewal to social disorder through the creative act.”
Sure enough, “Centropy” has a powerful energy to it. It’s the energy that’s produced when an artist at the top of their game pushes their practice one step further, into the unknown.
“The Hugo Boss Prize 2020: Deana Lawson, Centropy” is on view now through October 11, 2021 at the Guggenheim in New York.