Truth by Train/Ambiguity by Air

(left) Jacob Lawrence, “The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north.”, 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. © 2010 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (right) Allan deSouza, “Specter” from “The World Series, 2010-11.” Courtesy of the artist and Talwar Gallery, New York / New Delhi.

A recent review by Philip Kennicott of photographer Allan deSouza’s installation, The World Series, which responds to Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series, prompted me to take a second look at the artwork and jot down my thoughts.

Kennicott writes of deSouza’s work’s “. . . (perhaps unconscious) appeal to the class of people who travel, who are rich and privileged enough to enjoy the sweet dislocation of life in multiple time zones.”  Indeed, about half of the photographs in deSouza’s installation are of airborne postmodern travel, with the gray concrete and glass ubiquity of airports or shot from an airplane window, with no clear indication whether the image was shot in Jakarta, Prague, Paris, or Milwaukee.

It is in this visual continuity of deSouza’s images of air travel–with their dominant color and style of photographic gray–that I find an interesting parallel with Lawrence’s The Migration Series. The visual equivalent to deSouza’s grey is Lawrence’s use of brown, frequently painted with a dry brush, which the artist used to suggest the wooden floor of southern shotgun shacks, parched fields ravaged by drought or boll weevils, or the interior of railroad cars and train stations. Lawrence’s browns are a base color that evokes the depleted South that African Americans departed in droves.

DeSouza’s photographs and their glossy grays with metallic highlights and reflective surfaces express the 21st century world through which one travels (migrates). And while for many museum-goers and art critics, deSouza’s photographs may suggest the “sweet dislocation of modern life,” for today’s migrants they might suggest the alien world in which one travels to escape oppression and seek opportunity. Here I discern a parallel between the two artists’ work.  For the African Americans who traveled North during the great migration, the trips by train were not ordinary, not commonplace. They were journeys, perhaps taken once or twice in a lifetime. So it may be for today’s immigrants who travel by plane infrequently, but do make these trips, even if only once or twice in a lifetime.

However, there is also divergence in the means of travel in the two series. Lawrence’s series would never be construed as a commentary on the nature of train travel. DeSouza’s work clearly evokes feelings of air travel. Does this make each artists’ work weaker by comparison? For me, the answer is no. Rather this difference speaks to the earnest power of modernist artists to reveal truths, in contrast to post-modernist artists, such as deSouza, who are more about making observations and asking questions.

-Paul Ruther, Manager of Teacher Programs

3 thoughts on “Truth by Train/Ambiguity by Air

  1. The colors of grey and brown do make a thoughtful comparison possible in many ways. I also noted that the size of the photos and the Lawrence works are quite similar. One has to really think about the similarities of the two installations, where-as the differences seem to overwhelm at first glance.

  2. I have to say that I really enjoyed the photo series — until I went in the next room and revisited Lawrence’s series.

    The juxtaposition made the travel photos seem frivolous. Never mind the contrast in subject matter, the photo series was also missing the strong narrative and unity of Lawrence’s series.

    I really wish I hadn’t seen them together like that, because I did think the photos had a lot to offer on their own.

    • One big difference is in intentionaity. DeSouza mined his body of work to both respond to and comment on Lawrence’s Migration Series. He does not use narrative text, but rather word imagery as captured in his photographs. This I think leads to his work making clever political commentary on issues of immigration and migration. In comparison to the earnest power of Lawrence’s Series, deSouza’s images don’t hold up as a unified narrative, but they do leave more room for interpretation.

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