Deborah Jack explores shared histories of body and landscape

Deborah Jack uses lens-based media to unravel the presumed discretion of the racialized and gendered body of her environment. Born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, she grew up on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, which features prominently in her work. Its physical environment and the engagement of black women with it produces a dynamic repository for the stories of the modern African diaspora excluded from the archives because of slavery and colonialism. The 2015 photograph “story about our skin, #4” symbolizes Jack’s insistence on photography’s ability to express stories contained in the environment rather than the archive. The images focus on the face of a young black woman, who tilts her head back to look straight up. A barely legible image of flamboyant flowers and feathery leaves is projected across the apple of her cheek and follows the line of her jawline down her neck, casting a kaleidoscope of fiery red-orange and vivid green countered by twilight purples and sky blue at noon. The camera is placed slightly askew to the model, tentatively pushing the photography away from portrait conventions and towards the play of light and shadow that emphasizes the tiny scars on the model’s chin near the center of the composition. Jack asserts stories in this image which crosses the scale of the body and the landscape.

The important work of the retrospective Deborah Jack: 20 years to Pen + Brush provides the ability to track Jack’s consistent ladder manipulation. By scale, I certainly mean the size of the artworks in the gallery, which range from projection slides housed in light boxes to installations that fill an entire room. But the interwoven scales of body, island, and ocean are also materials that Jack deploys to manipulate space and time. Scale appears as a formal means of placing the body in various relationships with an environment that overshadows the individual in its monumentality, or manifests as tiny things that almost escape notice.

Installation view of intertidal imaginaries, untitled 1, Land 02and ancestors in Deborah Jack: 20 years at Pen + Brush, New York

Pen + Brush’s high-ceilinged space offers few opportunities for individual work to attract attention. The rectangular gallery is framed by a glass wall to the south and an exposed brick wall to the north end. The majority of Jack’s photographic and video works are installed against the walls and in two alcoves at the back of the space, creating a subtly cruciform plane and leaving a void in the middle of the gallery. It is special to feel Jack’s work swallowed up by space because his photographic prints are often large or in series, so that they command attention individually or collectively. His multi-channel videos are frequently exhibited as huge installations that use multiple screens or are projected onto adjacent walls.

The downstairs installation attempts to capture these integral plays of scale and dimension through a living room-style pendant lamp. By breaking with a more traditional gallery installation, Deborah Jack: 20 years suggests a domestic interior, perhaps to highlight Jack’s family lineage hinted at in a number of early works. Next to the exhibition text is ‘Lost Girl’ (2002), an archival print of a child (possibly Jack herself) mounted on lined paper. Handwritten sentences ask how a paternal grandmother she never knew was able to help her get to know her own father. Diagonally across the aisle, an image of the same matriarch is revealed beneath a layer of salt in five shadow boxes which include ancestors (2002). United by the dystopian nuclear haze of their orange tint, two landscape photographs frame these linear reflections; one of the most recent intertidal imaginaries series (2021-) is followed by the previous one Land 02 (2002). These groupings explain Jack’s use of photography to treat both figure and earth as subjects, but the installation leaves this viewer adrift, searching for ground amid low-pitched sound. pulsating to the limits of audibility, and another of crashing waves crashing through space.

Where the installation wavers, the conceptual rigor and formal finesse of Jack’s work hold. This propelling roar is a recording of the Rossby Whistle – a wave that cuts through the Caribbean seabed, emitting a frequency recorded by oscillations in the Earth’s gravitational field. The sound belongs to the 2018 video Drawn by Water: Drawings of the Sea in Three Acts, Act I: Waiting/Weighing on the Water. The video takes up the larger sea and hurricane motifs in Jack’s work. His motifs connect the destructive potential of nature with the horror of the Middle Passage and also posit these natural disasters as a means of lamentation and remembrance. Jack reinforces the video’s postcolonial critique with footage of the coastline, mostly Scheveningen in the Netherlands, not St. Maarten.

Installation view of Drawn by Water: Drawings of the Sea in Three Acts, Act I: Waiting/Weighing on the Water and “bounty II” in Deborah Jack: 20 years at Pen + Brush, New York

The sound of crashing waves that permeates the main gallery is part of the site specific BANK, discovered when going down to the lower level. The ground is covered with pristine white rock salt. Amidst an ambient soundtrack of creaking wood and lapping water, two screens project sepia-toned images of a ship’s mast, a secluded cove, a boat’s wake (in reverse shot) and of a rocky outcrop. A reflecting pool extends over the screens and multiplies the images above. A second projection threads through the back walls, splintering images of the swirling eye of an ultramarine-blue shaded hurricane. This reinstallation of a work from 2004 is a spectacular highlight. The dim glow of projections in a windowless basement gallery creates a meditative space; it invites the viewer to be enveloped by the sound of the waves and to touch the salt pebbles that form unstable hills on the ground.

larger than life BANK offers the viewer a new perspective on the rest of the exhibition when ascending the stairs – a new sense of the scale of things, like the interplay between monument and miniature in “bounty II”, a projection slide which depicts a salt mountain on the Dutch island of Bonaire in the Caribbean. Deborah Jack’s work is varied in aesthetics, media and subject matter, but always commands a careful gaze, lest it be caught up in an unconscious wave.

Deborah Jack: 20 years continues at Pen + Brush (29 East 22nd Street, Manhattan) through February 19.

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