Gordon Parks at Jack Shainman Gallery
Viewed on January 19th, 2021
A few steps into the Gordon Parks exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery and your head starts to shake. Not only because of the racialized society Parks captures (Department Store, Mobile, Alabama; Outside Looking In) but more for the force of his eye. Something about the composition — his editing of which elements are seen in highest resolution and which blur into a dream; his use of diagonals of brick walls, Studebakers, barbed wire; his finesse with color and preternatural timing to snap just as all the hues cohere. One of the most cogent elements of this exhibition is the attachment to Black youth and childhood, the insistence on Black innocence despite the vectors of racism that would view (and convict) Black youths as adults. “Half and the Whole” insists on this foundational childhood for Black Americans. Violence is easier to inflict on those whose childhood you don’t feel. (“But there never was a black male hysteria” Terrance Hayes writes; George Floyd calls out for his mother). Parks takes a close up of a boy daydreaming (Boy with June Bug, Fort Scott, Kansas), and one of the sweetest depictions of childhood I’ve ever seen (Untitled, Alabama, 1956). These intimate works aren’t as famous as ones that begin to call out racism (Doll Test, Harlem; Drinking Fountains, Mobile, Alabama). As Life magazine’s first Black photographer, Parks notably photographed Red Jackson, a teenager hiding from a gang in Harlem. There was more to Red than gang encounters, but Life excluded the more intimate photos of this teenager’s life — Red smiling at a toddler, or worrying in the mirror over his fledgling mustache. There are countless images of young white men joyfully swimming around naked: Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, Thomas Eakins. But how many photos of black youth playing nude in the water can you name? Parks has given a racist society such an image. It’s called “Watering Hole, Fort Scott, Kansas, 1963.” Just one of the many image-tools he created to help us insist on a deep and widening humanity.
Half and the Whole | January 7 – February 20, 2021
Jack Shainman Gallery | 513 West 20th Street New York, NY 10011