Spanning a 20-year period, “Gillian Laub: Family Matters” (through April 29 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum) is packed with crisply focused and intimate photographs of the artist’s New York Jewish family, installed in galleries as four acts and an epilogue. Laub sits on the edge of the “fourth wall”: As family member and photographer she is inside and outside, on-stage and a viewer.
As the acts introduce her family as a cast of characters, viewers see three generations unfold around Grandma and Grandpa—and then the ensuing, turbulent political and social events of the last four years. In Laub’s most poignant works the artist captures the body language of embraces, adrift gazes, and eye-rolls that reveal the love, loss, and rifts within her family. Most powerfully, the exhibition poetically circles around the simple gesture of extending a hand, represented in Laub’s elderly grandparents. As the acts progress, the idea of an extended hand resonates as the family and nation chart a path of healing and unity.
Act I introduces viewers to Grandma and Grandpa at dinners and on vacation; it poignantly conveys the family’s uninhibited spirit and compassion. In “Grandma grabbing Grandpa’s tush” (2000), Laub depicts her grandparent’s sauciness and bold fashion sense with Grandma’s bright red fingernails patting Grandpa’s zebra-printed speedo. With their sun spotted and wrinkled arms, the couple’s aging bodies still express a spicy affection. In the image installed directly to the right, viewers see Grandpa standing on the edge of the photo helping Grandma out of a car. With hands united, the couple are tied together in an expression of respect and care. While the bawdy humor and courtesy of these two gestures represents the understanding and intimacy between life-partners, it also embodies core values within the family.
Moving through the exhibition, the acts progress with Grandma and Grandpa passing away, Laub’s wedding, the birth of her two children, and then the divisive Trump presidency and isolation of the pandemic. In Act III we see photographs of Laub’s parents with red MAGA hats, napkins, aprons, and posters. As this drama unfolded in our nation, it unfolded within this family, creating an uncomfortable mix of the personal and political. With the waning Trump presidency, in Act IV Laub portrays her family during the languid isolation of the pandemic. Most poignantly, in “My quarantine birthday” (2020), Laub’s masked parents stand outside on the deck behind a sliding glass. With a balloon and cake, Laub’s parents are as close as they can be, but physically and politically separated.
While the photographic component of the exhibition ends with the hollowness of the pandemic, the text-based Epilogue spurs the imaginative possibilities of the future. With quotes from a family group message chat after the Biden inauguration speech, Laub’s father enthusiastically commends the speech and writes, “I’m on board to unite.” As the exhibition ends, the simple gesture of her grandparents extending their hands gets passed down to the next generation, where reaching out becomes healing the political divisions of the Trump presidency and the isolation of COVID. As viewers witness the dramas unfolding in the four acts, we voyeuristically might recognize our own families and consider how we might extend a hand to each other to move forward together.
GILLIAN LAUB: FAMILY MATTERS through April 29 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, SF. More info here.