Wednesday, January 23, 2008


If you want to see 60 DC area artists all in one space (while you wait for the next Artomatic), then check out Touchstone Gallery's current show Double Vision, which is on now through Feb. 3, 2008.

Work by Mary Ott, Paul So, Cynthia Young, Alice Whealan, Jeanne Garant, Christine Cardellino, Janet Wheeler, Helen Corning, Marcia Coppel, Miriam Keeler, Mari DeMaris, Marie Straw, Melissa Widerkehr, Charles St. Charles, Walter Smalling, T. R. Logan, Kyoko Cox, Steve Alderton, Brian Martucci, Michael Lang, Emery Lewis, Chris Hutchinson, Marshe Hutchinson, Janathal Shaw, Malia Salam-Steeple, Antonia Macedo, Peter Karp, Dina Volkova, Helena Chenomazova, Maya Mackrandilal, Bill Bennett, Harriet Rosenbaum, Dina Rotklein, Harvey J. Kupferberg, Ulrich Stein, Rima Schulkind, Alice Bindeman, Aina Nergaard-Nammack, Lee Wayne Mills, Rosemary A. Luckett, Brigitte Pierrette Davis, Tory Cowles, and Kathy Beynette.

Sonya A. Lawyer at GRACE

About three years ago I came across the work of DC area photographer Sonya A. Lawyer and included her in a massive exhibition titled “Seven” that I curated for the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran. Then I lost contact with Lawyer's artwork.

And then last week I was invited to speak on contemporary art at the Greater Reston Arts Center in Reston, Virginia and came across the new work by Lawyer, which was on exhibition in GRACE’s beautiful new gallery spaces.

To say that I was simply impressed with the new directions in her work would be the first great understatement of 2008.

I was taken, absorbed, seduced, educated, revitalized and convinced that this talented photographer had accomplished a very intelligent marriage of her photographic skills, her gender and her culture, all succinctly wrapped up and presented for comment and absorption in this exhibition.

On view was a 21st century marriage of Mondrian design, African-American history, vintage photography, online appropriation, race relations, enviable presentation and well-honed artistic skills, and also a lesson on power and vision.

Oh yeah... and also an imaginative American photographer perhaps liberating the work of those earlier photographers on whose shoulders she stands, and also the subjects of their work.

Joanne Bauer, GRACE’s hard working curator told me that Lawyer had began collecting vintage photo albums of imagery of people of color from a variety of sources such as online auctions and antique stores.

Later Lawyer told me that after a couple of months of watching the online auctions, she realized that some participants would buy an album and then split apart the images in the album and re-sell them individually to make a larger profit.

She also told me that “the women, men, and children are for the most part nameless and only now known by their auction ID number and their seller’s quirky sign-on. The thought of families torn apart, albeit figuratively, and then sold to the highest bidder is very disturbing and repeats a very troubling part of history. Although I recognize my own complicity by participating in the auctions of my ‘ancestors,’ I do feel that I am rescuing the albums (people) I can, from further disturbance.”

Enter the power of art, as a healing process perhaps, for the artist and even for the nameless faces in Lawyer’s growing collection.

But this is not an easy step to take. She then struggled and says that as she looked over the albums for the past couple of years, she was never quite sure how to, and if she should, incorporate them into her own artistic practice.

At the GRACE show we now know that she did. And she succeeds triumphantly, and a key to the success is her presentation.

Lawyer has incorporated the vintage images into a very modern, Mondrianesque quilt-like presentation on fabric that manages to bridge modern ideas with the historical perspective of the Gee’s Bend quilters to deliver something new and refreshing and geometrical in contemporary photography.

She says that “In a quest to work with new materials, and because I never felt as I if was finding the right colors in fabric stores, I began hand-dying cotton fabric. The texture and the process finally felt right.”

The individuals chosen by Lawyer say something about her and about her focus. There are no victims in these images of a people who perhaps were being victimized by history when these photos were being taken almost a century ago. Instead, in the works on display are beautiful, empowered, and proud people, and one hard-looking individual that has known little fear of others in his hard life.

MR 096 (Cerulean Blue) from Finding Authenticity (does anyone remember?) by Sonya A. Lawyer

MR 096 (Cerulean Blue) from "Finding Authenticity (does anyone remember?)"
24" x 18", 2007, photo transfer on fabric by Sonya A. Lawyer

And curiously, as Lawyer says, except for the tell-tale signs of clothing and hairstyle, some of the photographs may have been taken “eight days ago instead of 80 years ago.”

Beautiful, empowered, and proud... not the kind of images that Hollywood and popular culture generally uses as historical references for people of color from decades in the past; not caricatures and stereotypes, but human and authentic. Lawyer notes that “their eyes twinkle with insight and intelligence as they gaze at the camera, dressed in their best, with hair perfectly coiffed.”

When one looks at old portrait photographs discarded to the bins of antique shops or the digital world of online auctions, we all seem to come up with the same questions about these long-forgotten and abandoned people. And Lawyer asks “What were their names? How long did they live? Where did they work? Were they religious? Who were their friends and lovers? And who were their enemies? Who disappointed them and discarded them like trash? And who did they truly trust and believe in?”

Unfortunately, we will never know the answers to those and many similar questions. But I submit that in rescuing them from the bins of discarded history, and incorporating them into the substrate of a new art process, and consciously marrying them into a historical presentation brought forth into a contemporary dialogue, Lawyer has not only rescued, but also liberated these images and given them the potentially infinite lifespan that great artwork delivers.

The exhibition at GRACE goes through February 16, 2008 and it is the kind of exhibition with the impact deserving of a trip to Reston, by both the public and Washington Post, Washington Times and Washington City Paper critics alike.

GRACE, under the leadership of John Alciati and Joanne Bauer has made a noticeable turn-around in the last couple of years after a handful of years of being slightly out of focus and even in confusion, and kudos to the current board, curator and President/CEO is well deserved.

Go to Reston and see this show.