Lucinda Devlin--Frames of Reference, at Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne, through July 16, 2023
March 16, 2023
American artist Lucinda Devlin rose to fame in the 1990s with a series of soberly observed photographs of execution rooms in US correctional facilities titled “The Omega Suites.” The images caused a sensation at the Venice Biennale in 2001. One of the motifs had already attracted attention in 1992 when it was featured in a controversial advertising campaign for an Italian fashion label. “The Omega Suites” is one of nine photographic series, along with a video, on view in Frames of Reference, the first large-scale survey to be devoted to Lucinda Devlin in Europe.
Devlin, once part of the New Color Photography movement, seeks out her motifs mainly in interiors that serve specific functions. Most of her subjects are in the USA, but she has also done projects in Germany and other countries. In the mid-2000s, the artist added landscape scenes to her repertoire.
One searches in vain for people in Devlin’s pictures, and yet her images tell of human sensitivities and values, evoking existential life questions. In the series "Pleasure Ground" (1977–1990), for example, Devlin provides glimpses of hotel rooms with fantasy themes, discotheques, and beauty salons – places that promise relaxation and enjoyment. By contrast, the interiors in the "Corporal Arenas" series (1982–1998) have an unsettling effect. Operating rooms for human or animal patients, treatment spaces, and morgues are reproduced here in all objectivity. Viewers are compelled to reflect on their own feelings and experiences in such settings.
It was themes such as these that led the photographer to pursue the project she titled "The Omega Suites" (1991–1998). Devlin did not intend her photographs taken in maximum-security prisons to be understood as a statement for or against the death penalty. Contemplation of these very specific spaces is instead meant as an encouragement to engage personally with a difficult subject.
With the support of a DAAD grant, Devlin shot her series "Water Rites" (1999–2002) in German spas, adding a new twist to “Corporal Arenas.” “Water Rites” takes a look at what are in some cases time-honored institutions devoted to promoting well-being as well as to healing and convalescence. In Devlin’s "Subterranea" series (ongoing since 1980), she focuses her lens on caves and tunnels that have been made accessible for various uses, reproducing in her pictures the luminous colors generated by artificial lighting schemes installed underground. The way each space is staged can tell us something about its intended impact and use. That Devlin’s interests extend beyond spaces occupied by humans is evident from her "Habitats" series (ongoing since 1985), which spotlights zoo enclosures and aquariums that are modeled on natural animal habitats.
With "Field Culture" (primarily since 2007), the artist has turned to the question of how humans shape the outdoor environment. Here she investigates industrial agriculture in the USA, where genetic engineering and the need to generate sufficient energy are major factors in food production.
Devlin has found an enduring source of inspiration in the vast expanses of Lake Huron, to which she dedicated a series between 2010 and 2019 called "Lake Pictures", with images illustrating the beauty and grandeur of nature. She presents similarly imposing views of salt lakes and salt flats in Utah in the series "Salt" (ongoing since 2014).
The documentary and serial nature of Devlin’s projects suggests close parallels with the style of depiction represented in the collection of Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur. In the 1980s, while working as a university professor and curator, the artist already developed a fascination with the direct and objective methodology pursued by August Sander in his portraiture. And her photos also echo in some ways the strict comparative typology practiced by the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. Here as well, compelling correlations can be found among the Cologne collection’s central holdings.
A publication will accompany the exhibition, featuring essays by Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, Lucinda Devlin, and Claudia Schubert, as well as an interview conducted with the artist by Lisa Le Feuvre (Steidl Verlag, approx. 300 pages, German/English).
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