review: Deana Lawson’s “Planes” at the underground museum, los angeles 

Deana Lawson is one of the most intriguing artists and photographers working today, challenging perceptions unmistakably but also with subtlety and asserting her place in the art world. Lawson was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 2011 New Photography exhibition and the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and she’s been Assistant Professor of Photography at Princeton University since 2012. At the age of 39, she’s not short on accomplishments.  

Her current exhibition, Deana Lawson: Planes, at the Underground Museum in Los Angeles, is a recent showcase for her talents (with another being her cover shoot with Rihanna for the September 2018 issue of art and fashion magazine Garage). Lawson brings us a variety of narratives, some intimate and others that could be interpreted as provocative depending on your perspective. There’s a couple posing in their kitchen, tattooed young men with steady stares, a woman holding a baby in her living room, “Uncle Mack” standing next to a family photo with a shotgun in his hands. Nobody is dressed special for the camera, and the house hasn’t been done up to impress anybody. The settings are notable for their authenticity—threadbare and cluttered and far from the sterile perfection of some HGTV house. And yes, that’s exactly the kind of environment she photographed RiRi in, like she was an around-the-way girl, albeit dripping with couture.

At times as you walk through Planes, you could almost mistake Lawson’s images for found family snapshots that she chose to enlarge to gallery proportions. And, in fact, Lawson does sometimes work with found images. She also leverages the truth and gravitas of documentary photography while staging every moment, from the people to the props and scenarios. And if all of this subverting of conventional photography were not enough, Lawson prints her images quite large—as in big-historical-paintings large—giving viewers the sense that they’re in the presence of something very important. Because they are.