Dawoud Bey:

Art Review by Donald Goddard

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In the early 1990s, Dawoud Bey did a series of portraits made up of two or more large color polaroids in a grid. Each of the polaroids is a separate picture (half a face and a shoulder, for instance) taken in its own slightly different time from the others, but also part of a composite whole figure, or up to five figures. Sometimes the split is down the middle of the face and figure, at other times it occurs between two figures, with some bit of the other figure showing. But in every case it has the effect, and purpose, of allowing the viewer, the artist, to enter into a person, or into a relationship between two or more people. It is impossible, after all, to see people, to be with them, as single entities. They exist on any number of levels, within themselves and from the outside. David Hockney did something similar in the 1980s, with many more frames, as a kind of Cubist extrapolation of pictorial structure from photographic reality. But Hockney absented himself from the pictorial space in front of him; Bey wants to be inside it, where the figures are, and the gaps are where he enters.

He remains inside the portraits in this exhibition. The subjects fill the frames. Like Rembrandt's or Eakins' subjects, they are really there, not just sitting for portraits. At first these young people seemed angry to me, but rather they are solemn, solemnly and completely, though not humorlessly, occupying the spaces in which they appear. Some of the photographs are severe closeups of faces. When more of the figure is shown, and therefore more of the space around it, figure and surroundings are absolutely consonant. Everything is focused on seeing the person, who is an undeniable realization of the space he or she occupies. Charita, for instance, is embraced by the perspective of the path. Her left arm parallels one of these perspective lines. The swoop of her t-shirt is repeated in the curve of the curb. The light stanchion is like one of her legs. The glow of yellow in the background profiles her right shoulder, and a strip of the same yellow seems to emanate from her left arm. Her head is associated with the beautiful play of leaves in the tree behind her. She is more than the sum of all these parts. In every detail, we are forced to look at her, to be with her.

But the most incredible mechanism in these works is the field of focus. Never is everything, even the whole figure or face, in focus. It may be just in the area beneath the eyes, as it is in Diamond, where the coil of hair hanging down is also in focus. It is hard to calculate how much is in focus; most is not, more or less, in the same face, in the clothes, in the landscape. But there is a focal plane, and, in fact, it covers the entire height and breadth of the picture. It's just that this plane is extremely narrow, a privileged place to be. It is how Bey enters the picture, and stays there. He recognizes the camera as an instrument for doing this, and it is impossible not to join him.

Donald Goddard © 2001

The exhibition was on view at Bravin + Lee, New York, NY.
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