LaToya Ruby Frazier, Andrea Holding her daughter Nephratitioustide the Social Network Banquet Hall (2016 / 2017), all images via Gavin Brown’s
In her self-titled solo debut at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier illustrates an American landscape where dualities intertwine, marring the boundaries separating joy from despair or abundance from nothingness. Her depictions of secluded interiors, occupied by domestic clutters and family histories translate into stories of struggle, while barren deserts under the California sun encapsulate human ardor. Spanning her two decade photographic practice, Frazier’s three-floor presentation at the gallery’s spacious Harlem location introduces one series on each floor. Complimented by the accents of the building’s previous life as a brewery, the photographer’s black and white gelatin silver prints explore dichotomies of public and private, meditating on the role of the camera lens as a witness of our profound and collective moments, be those experienced firsthand or communally mediated.
The exhibition’s earliest, and sharpest, series The Notion of Family (2001-14) chronicles the plight of the de-industrialized town of Braddock in Pennsylvania, where three generations of women have endured economic, social and psychological burdens from the town’s slow decline. Frazier’s grandmother, mother, and herself all witnessed the rise and fall of their hometown which prospered in early 20th century with booming steel businesses, only to face the decline in population and wealth as jobs left, eradicated by the drug culture and neoliberal government policies during the artist’s coming of age in the ‘90s.
The maternal focus in Frazier’s photographs stems from necessity and choice: men fall short due to steel mill accidents, military positions or searches for a better life elsewhere. The artist’s brother appears in My Brother Sergeant Brandon Frazier and Me (2008), revealing the identical tattoo the siblings share. Women, however, depend on each other as caretakers, confidants, and witnesses. Frazier’s mother shows her stitch marks from a crude spine surgery in her 2008 photography titled Mom’s Spine Surgery; a decade later the same mother poses sideways next to her daughter’s sharp gaze in Mommy. Domestic rituals of Christmas nights, funerals, and bathtub showers contrast with civic authority, illustrated through various visits to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in hopes of therapeutic recovery. Frazier and her matriarchal circle convey dignity, perseverance, and community through demure and courageous moments, often induced by personal tragedies and public outbreaks.
Frazier’s recent photo-series, titled Flint is Family (2016-2017), turns her camera towards the ongoing water scandal in Flint, Michigan where a city-wide decline in the quality of life imposed harsh conditions on the working class, similar to the fate of the artist’s northeastern hometown in her previous series. Again, three generations of women embody suffering and resistance through Frazier’s equally journalistic and compassionate lens. Her delicate balance between domestic and public in the previous series furthers into questioning the role of the photographer as a witness and confidant for others’ agony. The moral responsibility of her documentary approach and aesthetic tenderness result in poetic, yet truthful compositions of struggle through Shea, Renée, and Zion, who, similar to the artist, her mother and grandma, find refuge in one another. Moments of public demonstrations in which anonymous figures hold signs of protest on the streets of Flint blend into profound shots of familial solidarity and dependence. The exhibition’s third installment A Pilgrimage to Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum (2016-17) challenges two other series’ human-centric approach with depictions of Joshua Tree desert where Noah Purifoy’s decades-old abstract public sculptures contain industrial debris in variable silhouettes. Sculptures the Alabama-born artist created with discarded materials in the aftermath of the Watts riots in the ‘60s California stand in for the human form Frazier is known to delicately snap, embodying both artists’ diligent commitment for tuning the political in with the intimate.
LaToya Ruby Frazier is on view at Gavin Brown’s enterprise through February 25, 2018.
— O.C. Yerebakan
Gavin Brown’s Enterprise[Exhibition Page]