In 1970, photographer and filmmaker Danny Lyon left his home in New York City, and moved out to the small village of Llanito, New Mexico, in the Rio Grande Valley, north of Albuquerque. Shortly after arriving, he began making photographs and films of his neighbors, their children, and the local labor force, all undocumented workers from Mexico. Years later, Lyon is still working in the regions of New Mexico and Arizona, exploring the tightly-knit communities of migrant laborers and their families from a directly engaged perspective.
This technique sits at the center of the artist’s new show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, looking directly into the past to engage with a present where conceptions towards the concept of citizenship and identity are under from a far-right conservative regime. Yet here, in a show where Lyon presents both archival photos and footage alongside more recent work from the past several years, Lyon’s pieces chart a personal, emotional relationship between his subjects and the American cultural landscape.
At the center of the exhibition is Wanderer (2017), which makes its world premiere at the gallery as both a reflection on and return to many of the themes and concepts previously explored in Lyon’s work in the region. A forty-eight minute film, Lyon shot the piece solo using a digital video camera that weighed less than a pound. Wanderer revisits many of the subjects depicted in the photographs on display in the show – especially members the Jaramillo family, who have lived through tragedies and trials like the imprisonment and death of their family member Willie, and who is remembered by his fellow family members in the video.
Other works on view explore the power and enforcement of the American immigration laws, such as El Mojado, a 1971 piece that underlines the relationship between Border Patrol agents and the traveling migrants that they chase across the desert, often delving into the psychologically disturbing relationships between each side. “This is the most interesting part of the job,” one agent says of chasing Mexican immigrants. “We really like this, you know, because it’s just like a hunter, you know, only you’re stalking a human being – and that really makes it a lot more fun.”
What emerges from Lyon’s immensely human portraits of all sides in the fraught political and social exchanges of the Mexican border is ultimately a comparison of life and power, the political forces that impose themselves over and around the fragile, familial connections that seem to sit at the core of these movements of people across political borders. Diving into these exchanges, Lyon allows the human experience, and the human cost of this modern political situation, to rise to the surface.
The show is open through October 21st.
— D. Creahan
Danny Lyon: Wanderer [Exhibition Site]