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This recent exhibition of LaToya Ruby Frazier's, which filled three floors of Gavin Brown's new building in Harlem, included photographs from one much-acclaimed body of work--"The Notion of Family," a thirteen-year project that Frazier began in 2001, when she was not yet twenty, and that eventually became a prize-winning book--and two more-recent groups, "Flint is Family" and "A Pilgrimage to Noah Purifoy's Desert Art Museum" (both 2016-17). "This will be Frazier's first solo gallery exhibition in New York City, her first solo commercial gallery debut in the United States, and her largest exhibition in New York to date," a release on the artist's website announced. Perhaps informed by this sense of event, or to take advantage of the gallery's grand space for a sort of a partial retrospective, Frazier anchored her new work with something tried and true: Photographs from "The Notion of Family" have been widely exhibited in the United States and abroad, including an appearance at the Whitney Biennial in 2012. A safe strategy was also a risky one, inviting comparison between new work and old, but it brought rewards.

"The Notion of Family" does something remarkable: Profoundly political, it is also profoundly personal, and vice versa. (Although those things are finally inextricable, no one will have to work hard to think of political work that's preachy and dry.) Frazier grew up in Braddock, outside Pittsburgh, an industrial town that has lost its factories and much of its population. Many of the people remaining there, many of them African American, struggle to live. Frazier's photographs of her family and their domestic and urban surroundings in Braddock have both the intimacy of the deeply known, felt, and loved and a rigorous detailing of social context that carries a sharp political message.

In 2013, Frazier did a project on the Monongahela River, which runs through Braddock. Now, for one of the new bodies of work, she traveled to Flint, Michigan, famously the site of a riverine environmental catastrophe ongoing since 2014: That year, to save money, the state began to draw the city's water from the Flint River, an inadequately treated source that leached toxins, including lead from the city's old pipes, into the drinking supply. Like Braddock, Flint is a formerly busy city that has lost its industrial base; the population is also more than 50 percent black. Here Frazier worked with a local family--Shea Cobb, a poet and singer who is also a school-bus driver, and her mother, Renee, and daughter, Zion--to document the effects of the water crisis. The resulting pictures are an inside view in a way much photojournalism is not: Frazier spent five months in Flint with the Cobb family, and her photographs suggest a powerful empathy between her and Shea. She also, through quotations in captions to the images and the voiceover to an accompanying video, gives Shea room to speak for herself.

In titling the project "Flint is Family," Frazier seems to be tying it to "The Notion of Family," aligning the two groups of work. In the earlier photographs, though, the family most visible is Frazier's own. That allowed those images to be both introspective, in their many self-portraits--a young woman was asking herself about herself--and psychically intricate, particularly in the "Momme" group, a sequence that pairs Frazier with her mother. (Although Frazier theoretically ended "The Notion of Family" in 2014, the show included one new, triumphantly beautiful "Momme" photograph dated this year.) This is a difficult standard to rise to, a challenge Frazier tackles, I think, by shifting her focus; if "The Notion of Family" encompassed the idea of the community as family, "Flint is Family" makes that idea explicit, even while approaching it through an individual household. The intensity of the earlier work is spread over a wider front.

As a group of photographs of artworks, the final project in the show, documenting the outdoor sculpture made by the artist Noah Purifoy on land at Joshua Tree, California, may initially seem an outlier to Frazier's social concerns. Her recognition of Purifoy as a precursor, though, is easy to understand: A black artist working with recycled materials in politically coded ways, he reclaimed the ignored.

--David Frankel

Caption: LaToya Ruby Frazier, Shea's Aunt Denise and Uncle Rodney in their home on Foster Street watching President Barack Obama take a sip of Flint water, 2016-17, gelatin silver print, 20x24".
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Author:Frankel, David
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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