Bathed in Light

Rising young photog exhibits brilliant portraits of African-Americans at Joseph Gross

At the Kris Graves photo installation at Joseph Gross Gallery, a woman's voice wafts above the illuminated portraits of black women and men hanging on the walls. The recording loops continuously, retelling over and over an ugly story of racial hatred and discrimination.

The woman explains that she worked as a recruiter in a New York City employment agency in the late 1980s to the early 1990s, not that long ago, and certainly within the lifetimes of the young adults in Graves's photos. The woman screened applicants for jobs in the glamour fields of advertising, PR and publishing.

Time and again, she says, she would be told by prospective bosses: Don't send us anyone from the Bronx, from Brooklyn, from the city.

We want Midwesterners.

"Midwestern" was code: What they really wanted, the woman says, were candidates who were lily-white.

Once when she sent a black applicant to interview at a PR firm, the receptionist turned the woman away at the front desk. The furious employer called the recruiter, screaming to get rid of her "if you ever effing send me a n----- again."

As the woman recalls, "There was insane prejudice."

This story serves as a painful backdrop to Graves' glorious color portraits of scores of black people in their prime. The juxtaposition of the vicious spoken story and the glowing young faces is a brilliant move on Graves's part. It's an aching reminder that these subjects still face prejudice, both coded and not, as the recent white supremacist rampage in Charlottesville demonstrated. Insane prejudice is still with us.

A fast-rising young New York photographer, armed with a 2004 BFA from SUNY Purchase, Graves has found a game-changing new way to portray black people in America.The Testament Project, his solo exhibition at Joseph Gross Gallery, has about 85 color portraits, all of them simple individual shots.

But Graves deviates from art convention in important ways, by turning his subjects into his partners. He illuminates each of these bright young faces with colored lights, but it's up to the people he pictures to choose the hues he uses.

They had a rainbow of colors to select from, from pastel pinks, yellows and sky blues, to black, red and mahogany.

One young woman turned up for her shoot in a tidy buttoned blouse, neatly trimmed hair and dainty earrings. For her portrait she chose tones of pink and soft violet. It sounds girly-girly, but it's not: She stares with supreme confidence at Graves's camera, and her direct gaze is power itself.

A contemplative man seen in silhouette has his eyes nearly closed; he seems to be deep in thought. Only his head is lit; the background is a dramatic midnight black. His jacket disappears into the shadows, with a single, striking white stripe zipping out of the black.

A woman wearing glasses looks off into the distance, her face shimmering in a soft orange, a sunset violet behind her. She's attentive and alert, her lips slightly parted, checking out what's ahead, maybe planning her future.

In an artist's note, Graves explains that by handing over control of the lighting to each subject, the people in the pictures "create a space that is participatory and empowered.

By including subjects... and altering...color I seek to create individuality in addition to their blackness."

Graves also supercharges the dignity of his subjects by arranging their photos in a grand wall grid whose dimensions match the heroic history paintings of old. Eighty gleaming color photos are arranged in four rows of 20.

Carefully sequenced by Graves, the painterly colors are spectacular, flowing from yellow to purple to black to red. If you squint, you can imagine a glorious classic painting memorializing great deeds.

But what you actually see are the very individual faces of very real people, each one different, each one complex.

The Testament Project, Graves says, also subverts the artistic convention of generally excluding black people as subjects.

When they're pictured at all in fine art or in popular art or the press, they're portrayed as "very rich or very poor; they are demonized, ridiculed, idolized or hypersexualized."

Not here. Each of these people—the scholarly woman with her hair in a bun, bathed in a soft red light; the guy in the gray hoodie; the preoccupied man wearing a wedding ring, holding a hand to his face; the college student with the curly hair—are testifying, asserting their identities, proudly occupying their space.

Not all is sweetness and light. There is that voice, after all, the constantly playing recording, reminding them of messages they might have heard as little kids back in the '90s or the overt hatred they still face today.

Some of the pictures show defiance, anger, furrowed brows, skeptical looks. One woman in dreads simply turns away, her back to the camera, weary perhaps, of the struggle.

But whether optimistically gazing toward the future or pondering the travails of the present, each one is an individual, supremely herself or himself, glistening and glorious.

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