The Whitney Biennial may only jumpstart the careers of one or two artists per show, but we’re betting LaToya Ruby Frazier will be one of them. That is, if her career even needs it; before being invited to the Whitney, her photographic and performance work had been shown at most major contemporary museums in the city, including MoMA PS1, The New Museum, and The Bronx Museum. She was also the subject of an Art:21 documentary in 2011 and has been reviewed positively by literally every major media outlet in the city save New York Magazine.
These are no small shakes for a 30-year-old artist, and they accurately reflect the strength of her work. Frazier, who was born and raised in Braddock, Pennsylvania, uses her family and hometown as subject matter for her intimate black and white photographs. In a project she began as a teenager, her best-known images depict figures who seem either badly emotionally scarred or barely surviving. This is particularly clear in the shots of her ailing grandmother, but also in a dishevelled self-portrait shot topless. At the very least, Frazier does not look happy.
“I always resented the fact that I was forced to leave my hometown for a better education and job opportunities,” she told us, before launching into a discussion about how the loss of industry and blue-collar jobs have affected cities across the country and abroad. Her latest work focuses on the loss of the Braddock hospital, a medical center torn down because it could not make a profit. Frazier did not mention her own illness, lupus, which adds another macabre layer to her newest work. [Q and A and slideshow, after the jump.]
2012 Art Stars: LaToya Ruby Frazier
Is there an artist/exhibition/artwork that's had an especially significant
impact on your development either recently or at the beginning of your career?
The artist Martha Rosler has had a significant impact on my development the past two years. Her rigorous criticism on documentary photography and creative class theory has stretched the way I am currently approaching aesthetic and conceptual frameworks. Martha Rosler has challenged me to rethink how to complicate modes of representation that address class and power relations.
Is there a work or show that you have produced that you would consider a touchstone to your body of work?
In the fall of 2011 I curated the exhibition Mass Distractions and Cultural Decay at Rutgers University. I set out to challenge our students to have a dialogue about art and politics for our program. With the anniversary of 9/11, Occupy Wall Street, and local protests against police brutality in New Brunswick, I wanted to facilitate a space so students could gain a heightened awareness of how artists as cultural agents employ tactics and strategies to counter and subvert dominant ideologies that promote racism, classism, imperialism, colonialism and consumerism, to name a few. In order to build a larger social and theoretical framework to cross disciplines in the university I based the exhibit on Frankfurt school theorists Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s critique of what they called the “Culture Industry.” The exhibit included over 150 artists, with seminal pieces from Andrea Fraser, Martha Rosler, Laura Mulvey, Emory Douglas, Sam Durant and Harun Farocki. Exposure to all of these artists pushed critical strategies in my own practice.
If you could exhibit your work anywhere, where would you choose? (We don't just
mean institutions and museums)
If I really could exhibit my work anywhere, it would be at The White House.
If you could tell your past self one thing what would it be?
Take better care of your health.
How do you describe your work to your parents?
I describe my work to my parents as images that are a springboard for talking about greater issues surrounding healthcare, class and environmental injustice in America.
Your hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania is very important to your work; on your website you state that it's the site for all of your photographs. At the same time, you've spent a lot of time away—first at Edinboro, then at Syracuse, now in New Brunswick. How has that affected the way you work?
I could not possibly have the insight into the larger issues my work is addressing if I did not leave home to look at it from a distance. It is very important to take a step out of the bubble. I always resented that fact that I was forced to leave my hometown for a better education and job opportunities. But, with the distance and support within institutions located in all three of these cities, I have gained a maturity to understanding how the loss of industry and blue-collar jobs have affected many communities in America as well as abroad.
How do you feel about sympathy? Do you try to erase it, provoke it, use it?
I prefer empathy.
Talk about your choice to work in black and white.
My work is rooted in the history of social documentary practice and theoretical debates about photography throughout the 1930s and 50s. I am interested in how the same sociopolitical concerns shared by Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, The Photo League and the F.S.A. photographers relate to the current situations we face in the revitalization process in Rust Belt cities in America today.
Poor Jebus, never allowed to have any fun.
Apr 22, 2011
At this point I'll do just about anything to toodle around on google image search for a few hours.
Apr 13, 2011