Perception is a tricky thing.
It’s deeply personal and subjective, yet it has the power to twist and mold far-reaching ideas of who’s on the inside, and who’s on the outside.
St. Louis, for instance, isn’t often perceived as a cultural center of the art world—and yet, through the efforts of Barrett-Barrera Projects, that perception is changing. Their bold, thoughtful and, at times, rebellious exhibitions have changed the landscape of St. Louis’s art scene in noticeable ways, prompting show openings with incredibly eclectic lists of attendees and red-carpet rollouts to rival the most in-demand events in SoHo.
Now, in the midst of a pandemic that makes in-person openings unlikely (if not impossible), the BBP team has shifted to canny virtual experiences that trade the excitement of an opening night for the intimacy of an at-home experience, offering unprecedented access to artists and curators who make the shows what they are—another trick of perception, and one that turns the possible challenges of moving from physical to digital into advantages.
For their latest show, “Just Pictures,” which is currently on view at projects+gallery at 4733 McPherson Ave., one of the great advantages was allowing for broader access to the works. “As of last week, there had already been 800 views, and there were 200 people that were in and out of that virtual tour. When you think about our openings normally, we typically have 200 to 300 people attending,” explains Bridget Melloy, Senior Director at projects+gallery.
The switch to digital has also allowed for exclusive artists’ talks, which normally would exclude international artists simply because of the logistics of time and space—now, in the virtual world, those international artists are able to present their talks right alongside their domestic counterparts. This juxtaposition of local and international is central to the fabric of “Just Pictures” in particular, which acts as a sort of sequel to curator Antwaun Sargent‘s “The New Black Vanguard,” juxtaposing young Black interdisciplinary photographers from as far away as Lagos, Nigeria, and as close as our own backyard—as is the case with St. Louis photographer Justin Solomon.
Solomon, too, knows a thing or two about perception. His striking portrait photographs are engulfed in shadow to the point of silhouette, and so engage the viewer in the tension of wanting to see, and feeling the trepidation of what lies in shadow.
“Conceptually, the silhouette reclaims a lot of power. Historically and mythologically, black or any aspect of darkness has usually been attributed to the unholy. When we look at scary movies or even observe stories told to children that keep them up at night, darkness is almost always used as the vehicle for our greatest nightmares,” Solomon says. “Outside of those stories, those same ideas have been superimposed onto brown and Black people. We are a misunderstood people and what people don’t understand, they fear.”
Through presenting figures that would be considered underexposed, Solomon both challenges white viewers in their perceptions—and, as he’s quick to point out, reframes the narrative among Black viewers. “Every day a Black person is alive, they’re reclaiming their identity in some way. Our skin has always been used as a rhetorical device to assert ideas around who and what Black people are, how we function in the world, and our value as a result. While my work isn’t aimed at non-Black folk who don’t understand what it means to be Black, I do desire to help those who look like me get to a place where they can fully understand themselves and the issues plaguing all of us.”
It would be a mistake to call this exhibit “timely,” in that there’s never a moment in which a show of young Black artists turning their cameras on their peers (whether in the name of art or fashion—many of those presented are in-demand commercial photographers as well) wouldn’t feel somewhat political. But it does feel particularly relevant that this show is on view at the end of a summer when the ultra-lauded Annie Liebovitz faced critical backlash for her photographs of Olympian Simone Biles in VOGUE, and Vanity Fair hired Dario Calmese as the first—yes, first—Black photographer to shoot a cover.
“One of the things Antwaun is highlighting in this show is that there are so many voices out there that just are not being amplified,” says Melloy. “This show is almost the next chapter of “The New Black Vanguard,” and this has eight photographers in it—there are so many talented artists of color that just aren’t getting their due, especially young artists.”
While the arts and fashion establishment may be slow to recognize the power and presence of these Black photographers, those in the scene aren’t. “The entire experience still seems very surreal to me, because a lot of the image makers [in the exhibit] are people whose work I’ve followed for quite some time,” Solomon says.
Solomon’s pieces are evidently in good company—and while they may be worlds away geographically, his peers are clearly in conversation with one another. “I think [Antwaun Sargent] is really using his voice to amplify these artists of color, and give them a platform, and really identifying some up-and-coming talent,” Melloy says. “I think it’s also kind of showing that these artists are being recognized. It’s almost like the art world is the last one to catch up—They’re getting a major commissions by Nike, Adidas, Apple … major, major brands. They’re getting asked to do album art or photos spreads for huge celebrities. It’s kind of the art world who, in some ways, is the last to come around.”
For Solomon, the world “coming around” on overlooked Black artists is in lockstep with the world coming to acknowledge that art can come from outside New York or LA. “When I think about my place in a show like ‘Just Pictures,’ which is exploring the spectrum of Black image makers, it seems imperative that the spectrum not have any geographical limitations. Midwestern image makers have just as much to show and, more importantly, to say, as anyone else around the world. We just need the world’s attention.”
As “Just Pictures” proves, when that attention is given, it is richly rewarded. “I think it may be indicative of the artists’ age, or just the time we’re in—but this show has been really invigorating,” Melloy says. “I don’t know if that’s strictly because these are young artists with brilliant ideas, or because of all the figures in the work, but they just really make the space feel like it’s come back alive. There’s a lot of energy around it.”
From Solomon’s perspective, some of that energy may be the buzz of a community finally controlling its own image—if not, still, its own perception. His goal remains, “not to objectify the person within the skin, but to characterize the skin in a way that counters history itself—especially the history of images—and in turn celebrates it.” It’s a tall order, but one that comes to life in the space of “Just Pictures.”
“To celebrate one’s skin under these conditions is truly a revolutionary act,” Solomon says, “and when engaged in a revolution, in such a digital age, we are forced to be critical of the images we see of ourselves.”
“Just Pictures” is on view now through November at projects+gallery, located at 4733 McPherson Ave. in St. Louis. Works from the exhibition are available for purchase by contacting the gallery.