Carolyn Drake’s “Knit Club”

Ben Eastham

March 18, 2022
Yancey Richardson, New York
March 5–April 9, 2022

To walk into Yancey Richardson’s Chelsea gallery is to enter a secret society of women. These photographic portraits of women alone, with their children, and in groups—their faces often hidden behind objects ranging from bunches of flowers to a plaster cast death mask—are freighted with esoteric symbols. A snake twists around a tree as if it were Asclepius’s staff before transforming into dangling feet; a woman holds an eerie nineteenth-century painting of a small girl in front of her like a screen. A slim figure in a pink dress wearing the rubber mask of an eagle’s head completes the impression of having stumbled into a feminine cult, the meaning and membership of which must remain obscure to the uninitiated.

That the title of the exhibition suggests this is a “knit club” does not diminish the mystery: even fleeting acquaintance with the literature of the Southern Renaissance is enough to forewarn the viewer that the weirdest histories are concealed behind the picket fences of polite society. And we are unmistakeably in the American South of the popular imaginary: complementing the air of collapsed grandeur connoted by peeling colonial-era wallpapers and hardwood dressing tables are signifiers as direct as a Victorian Gothic dollhouse standing on burned prairie grass (Dollhouse, 2019) and freshly cut azaleas (Lucy with Azaleas, 2018). The setting is, in fact, a small town in the same Mississippi district that William Faulkner fictionalized as Yoknapatawpha County, and the author’s sensibility runs through this selection of nine highly stylized photographs from a body of work also anthologized in a photobook of the same name.

Faulkner’s chief contribution to literature was to pioneer a style that gave the reader access to the most intimate thoughts of his characters without making their motivations any easier to comprehend. His novels suggest that simple narrative arcs and stock personalities are authorial constructs; if you move beyond the facades that they present to the world, people and communities become more rather than less mystifying. This tension between visibility and legibility—between being represented and being known—characterizes Drake’s documentation of the members of the “knit club” she was invited to join after moving to Water Valley in 2013. She invites her subjects to collaborate in the composition of her photographs, and so we are forced to read these women as they construct themselves. In most cases denied the shorthand of their faces, we must instead piece together their histories and personalities from fragments of a private language that is impossible directly to parse (there is no suggestion here that symbolic props as varied as eagles’ heads and Joseph Whiting Stock’s 1838 Portrait of Mary Jane Smith should resolve into any coherent scheme). The upshot is a psychological complexity that, because it foregrounds the essential unknowability of its subjects, exceeds conventional representations of people and their communities.

Drake’s photographs communicate a profound respect for this particular association of women, and the version of femininity that they collectively embody. This is not a fixed construct imposed from outside, but a set of relationships between women living in a specific place at a particular time. At a moment when we are being reminded that individual and collective freedom is predicated on the right to remain hidden as much as the imperative to be seen, the series’ achievement is to celebrate this formation of female solidarity without foregrounding the biographical data of its subjects or suggesting that it can be abstracted into a universal model against which to judge others. In their portrayal of a small-town congregation of women as both mutual support group and borderline sinister coven, these mock-gothic images are enthralling, mischievous, and determinedly resistant of external narratives.

The selection from “Knit Club” is complemented by the exhibition in a neighboring room of five photographs from a more recent body of work, undertaken by Drake during the pandemic. Each of them depicts a curious assemblage of domestic objects—including cereal packages, salt tins, newspaper cuttings, and twigs in the case of May 30 (2020)—jerry-rigged into very loosely figurative sculptures and photographed against a cloth backdrop in the artist’s garden, a daily practice conceived as a means of alleviating the anxiety of lockdown (the series is titled “Isolation Therapy”). These witty aggregations don’t seem to bear any obvious relation to the portraits next door, until you look more closely at the objects out of which they are built. In each case you find, in some half-hidden corner of the composition, the eye of a small digital camera looking directly back at you. I gaze at the photograph, attempting to make sense of it; the photograph gazes back at me. Who is constructing whom?

Photography, Feminism, Image

Ben Eastham is editor-in-chief of e-flux Criticism.

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Yancey Richardson
March 18, 2022

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