Photographs of Tropicalísimo reflect beauty and resiliency

John Sevigny, Two Transvestites with Dog
John Sevigny’s “Two Transvestites with Dog.”

“Heat, humidity, salty air, and frequently conditions of poverty, cause things and people to fall apart south of the Tropic of Cancer.” Such are the musings of photographer John Sevigny, whose new exhibit at Latino Arts comprises 40 digital photographs taken in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador between 2012 and 2014. Titled Tropicalísimo, the photos “look at people and things as they corrode, and yet, remain bound by rust, wire, string and the sheer force of human will.

These 40 works are mostly color prints of moderate size, tacked directly to the wall. As simple as the curatorial presentation may be, the order of their placement creates a sense of rhythm and, at times, direct dialogue between the pictures. Many images suggest ripe short stories, where the narrative of daily life is filled with beauty and resiliency.

One of the strengths of Sevigny’s work is his manner of photographing people. Regardless of their surroundings, whether sprawled on a tattered couch on the pavement or secluded in a dark interior room, something has been chosen in that photographed moment. They are lifted out of the flotsam and jetsam of the everyday grind, calling out to the essential dignity of each person. The photographer’s talent in this is innate, but also seems to recall something of art historical predecessors.

One of the first pieces in the exhibition is labeled simply “Two Transvestites with Dog.” The heat is palpable. A woman is slouched in a chair, her short skirt exposing legs while an arm draped over her head pulls hair back from her damp brow. Her companion fusses with a small white dog who pants atop a table. The shadows conceal her face and it takes a moment to see the cigarette dangling from her lips. The realness of the picture, and the deep shadows that linger on the sides and behind the two main figures, employ the dynamics of Baroque painting — Caravaggio, in particular, comes to mind.

Perhaps this is not accidental. Sevigny has written about Caravaggio in the past, and the Italian artist was notorious for depicting his subjects in stark realism. Even in religious paintings, Caravaggio would use ordinary men and women from the street as models, a move that shocked viewers who deemed this as a transgression on propriety. Today, we hold no such strictures, but what Sevigny does is present the people of his photographs in a manner that conveys a similar sense of gravity.

Sevigny also references Caravaggio’s fellow 17th-century artist Diego Velázquez, who explored the picture plane as a deep, multi-dimensional world. Sevigny’s Juke Box and Pooh is similarly dense, although it doesn’t appear so at first. We look into a seemingly deserted bar, decorated with a poster for the football team Real Madrid and the eponymous jukebox with a large cut-out of Winnie-the-Pooh on top. But our eyes travel back, behind a half-curtained wall to the area beyond. A clothesline is strung with laundry, a note on the domestic necessitates that lie just out of reach of the public space.

John Sevigny, Mancar.
John Sevigny, Mancar.

Texture and color are rich notes in Sevigny’s photographs, offering a lush surface from which to contemplate the scenes and subjects he portrays. “Mancar,” with its tightly cropped focus on a man driving a rusted yellow automobile, feels like a claustrophobic traffic jam, no matter the time of day. To cite a more modern comparison, this seems a cousin to work by the Indian photographer Ragubir Singh, who also fixated on visual color and the vibrance of his native culture in pictures combining documentation and poetry.

There are some weighty stories in these works. Sevigny, in his exhibition introduction, notes that violence was part of many places he lived and worked. This is at times less obliquely referenced. In a poignant curatorial pairing, pieces called Crib and Coffin are placed side-by-side. The photographic prints are the same size, but they upend assumptions. Crib shows a man lying in a baby’s crib on the street, scrunched in a fetal position behind its blue painted bars. Coffin is a close-up view of the pleated fabric on the inside. It is not entirely clear which part of the coffin we see, nor the source for the discoloration and speckles of color on the pale surface.

Sevigny’s work is currently on view at Latino Arts, a center for education and arts in the Hispanic community. Sevigny grew up in Miami and his work has taken him far field as a news photographer for the Associated Press and other major organizations. While Latino Arts’ exhibition may seem modest in execution, the center for education and the arts in the Hispanic community is in fact presenting an artist whose work has been shown internationally. In this context, the show’s intimacy is an excuse to be more fully engaged in Sevigny’s Tropicalísimo.

Tropicalísimo by John Sevigny continues through June 3 at Latino Arts, 1028 S. 9th St., Milwaukee. Admission is a $1 donation. For more information about this and other Latino Arts programs, visit latinoartsinc.org.