LaToya Ruby Frazier, internationally recognized photographer and associate curator and gallery director at Mason Gross School of the Arts, has put together a photography exhibition that demonstrates a postmodern sensibility while it strives to preserve culture and history.
“On Photography: Culture, History and the Narrative” — with an opening reception Thursday, October 10, and on view at Mason Gross until Saturday, October 19 — involves seven photographers whose styles and approaches create reflection on people, places, and spaces.
The first of a series of proposed exhibitions, Frazier’s concept is based on NJ Transit’s Northeast Corridor Line and explores the relationship between artists to the towns and cities between Philadelphia and New York.
While that was one criterion that guided her selection of the participating artists, other factors included exceptional work and the artists’ affiliation with nonprofit organizations or art institutions that play pivotal roles in photography.
Frazier believes that students at Mason Gross — located downtown in New Brunswick — need to know that “outside of producing your work you have to have a professional practice. Each of these artists will highlight in addition to their work, professional practice that they do as teachers, as assistants, as mentors, people who have close relationships with non-profits. It’s hard for students to get their head around how do they find the support once they graduate, and each of these artists have been supported by institutions or nonprofits.”
She sees this exhibition as a “gift, or tip sheet” for the students on how to build their resumes and do outreach for their work and themselves.
Frazier describes the show largely as a conversation between all of the work where the question is “how does one make a portrait?” However, some of the work reflects the “anti-portrait.” You don’t have to see a figure or a face.
Christopher Gianunzio, from Philadelphia, has created an installation with images culled from an archive documenting domestic furniture from different periods. For him the thinking was about the socioeconomic status of whoever owned the chair, sat in the chair, or the home it was once in. According to Frazier it is a way of looking at people without physically looking at a face or a body.
Gary Schneider lives and works in New York. He is an assistant professor of photography at Mason Gross, currently on leave with a Guggenheim Foundation Grant. His large-scale handprints, he says, are “as expressive as any portrait of a face, more private, and possibly more revealing. It’s an icon present in every religion. I also borrow from the 19th-century spirit photography (scientific investigation), stop signs, and children in art classes everywhere making handprints as self-identification.”
Doug DuBois’ color prints deal with his family through the breakup of his parents and his mother becoming undone. The work, extremely personal, shot over a period of 25 years is from his book “. . . all the days and nights.”
Brooklyn-born Groana Melendez attempts to create a connection with her family — “a connection that became fragile due to long periods of absence. She executes this by shooting portraits of her relatives and capturing the spaces they inhabit.” Frazier selected her work to reflect and identify the Latino community in around the college. She figures in the timeline of color portraits and the subject of family.
Wendel White, born and raised in New Jersey, shows work from his series “Schools for the Colored,” images of segregated schools in the north. The veil around the portraits of the schools (a digital technique of obscuring the landscape surrounding the institutions) is a direct reference to W.E.B. Dubois’ “The Souls of Black Folk,” who, describing an early school experience, wrote, “I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.” This writer assisted Frazier in selecting White’s work for this exhibition.
Also featured in the group are Elia Alba and Carrie Schneider.
LaToya Ruby Frazier is an artist in her own right. A rising star, she has a that resume reads like that of an accomplished mid-career artist, not the 31-year-old photographer who received her MFA from Syracuse just six years ago. Frazier arrived on the Rutgers campus after being named the recipient of the College Art Association’s professional development grant and an award from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. It placed her at Rutgers with the idea of keeping talented artists in the state when so many would move to New York to pursue their careers.
She has gained valuable experience as an administrator in the gallery and does everything from picking up work from an artist and arranging the exhibitions and programming, to working with students on their thesis shows during the spring. She has also has been called upon to teach photography classes at Mason Gross. She has also had teaching positions at the School of Visual Arts in New York and was named photography critic at Yale University.
A native of Braddock, Pennsylvania, Frazier has — for the past 11 years — used this small steel mill town outside of Pittsburgh as the tableau for her work, especially her “The Notion of family 2002 to Present.” It deals with her family.
Though members of her family had worked in the mill before it closed, economic and social conditions necessitated that the young photographer be raised and supported by her grandmother. An academic scholarship provided the financial support for Frazier to attend Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.
Frazier says that each generation of her family has seen the town in different stages. Her grandmother, aka Grandma Ruby, knew the town during its prosperous period when there were department stores, movie theaters, and restaurants. She died in 2009. Her mother witnessed the closing of the steel mills and white flight to the suburbs. Frazier herself witnessed the war on drugs, which has decimated her family.
In her artist statement she says “Between our three generations we not only witnessed, we experienced and internalized the end of industrialization and the rise of deindustrialization.” She goes on to say, “Lately I have created photographs and videos that address class inequity, access to health care, and environmental racism. Grandma Ruby died from pancreatic cancer and diabetes, Mom currently suffers from an unknown neurological disorder and cancer, and I was diagnosed with lupus 12 years ago.”
Part activist, part social commentary, this history of African-Americans in Braddock has not been widely documented. She also notes the industrial decline in Braddock and the effect it has had on black families and communities.
The acceptance of her work has even surprised her. It has led to group shows at the New Museum in New York, MoMA PS1 in New York City, the Whitney Biennial in 2012, the recent “LaToya Ruby Frazier: A Haunted Capital” (her first solo show at the Brooklyn Museum), and the forthcoming “LaToya Ruby Frazier: Perspective 182” at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, Texas.
In the spring she will see her first monogram from Aperture Foundation and travel to Germany as an American Academy in Berlin Prize Fellow.
Frazier connects her success to the mentors who have guided her throughout her college career to present. “You should always have a mentor; you’re never too old to learn.” As examples, she gives credit to Kathe Kowalski, her first photography professor at Edinboro University, who set the rigorous tone for practice, and Syracuse graduate school instructor Carrie Mae Weems — who recently was named a MacArthur Fellow — for being able to understand issues of class. Says Frazier: “Through her I learned about the post-modern condition of capitalism. I really picked up becoming socially invested in the images I was making, with a compassion towards class.”
On Photography: Culture, History and the Narrative, Mason Gross Galleries, 33 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Saturday, October 19. Reception, Thursday, October 10, 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Free. 848-932-5202.