by Roberta Smith

D’Angelo Lovell Williams

The New York Times



Through Sept. 2. Higher Pictures, 980 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; 212-249-6100,

The 10 reverberant color photographs in D’Angelo Lovell Williams’s show at Higher Pictures form one of the year’s best gallery debuts. Seemingly uncomplicated and improvisational, the works set off startling strings of associations and meaning, tearing through references to race, gender, eroticism, art, fashion, culture and history like crashing dominoes. Yet silence reigns: All is encompassed and centered by the presence of the artist, who is usually shown leveling a steady, slightly quizzical gaze at the camera, and the certainty with which he wields his black, male body as shape-shifting subject and material.

This happens with special power in “Structural Dishonesty,” a title that resonates with the phrase institutional racism. We see Mr. Williams seated, bare chested, against a wall of raw plywood, in a state of extreme inhale. His chest is pulled up so that his waist is tiny, seemingly corseted; his flaring rib cage suggests a padded bosom, especially because he delicately touches his throat, as if fingering jewels. It is the exaggerated silhouette of a 19th-century woman of wealth, straight from the novels of Edith Wharton or Henry James, as well as a discreetly ambiguous, possibly homoerotic come-on, given his unbuckled belt and unzipped pants. But also here are intimations of horror: slaves’ cabins, 19th-century photographs of slaves’ backs scarred by flogging, the open pants of lynching victims.

In “Face Down, Ass Up,” the artist bends over in a corner, in front of a wall covered with flowered fabric. We see only his backside, his white briefs and the vulvalike shape of pink edged in yellow at the center: It is menses and a sign of torture, yet oddly painterly and artificial, like the image of a stigmata lifted from some over-the-top painting of a saint. “Fleurish” shows him naked against a dark turquoise wall, seated on a folded quilt atop a thick cabinet with his feet barely touching the floor. His genitals are obscured by a phallic vase whose long-stemmed blossoms frame his face: a childlike yet imperial dandy — an analogy aided by the title’s hints of flourish and flâneur.

“The Lovers” shows the heads of two black men kissing through the veils of reversed black do-rags. The taboo of black male love is evoked, while the frustrated white couple of René Magritte’s identically titled Surrealist landmark — white-shrouded and heterosexual — is inverted. These disarmingly casual yet solemnly astute images are performances that aim for the hearts of many matters.