Lens Language Leaves You Warm

Published December 4th 2023
By Sophia Mason

Kai Ross, Lens Language, 2023. Photo of installation by Sophia Mason

MadameFraankie, Close up of Time Will Reveal , 2023, Pigment Print, 24 x 84 inches.
Edition 1 of 1. Photo by Sophia Mason

Tone Gallery in Memphis, TN currently has Lens Language on display, a two-person photography show that promotes the small, tender gestures of relationships of all kinds. It shows black and white film photography from musician and photographer MadameFraankie (she/hers) in the first gallery, and digital prints in an installation by Kai Ross (they/them) in the second gallery. Photography (and all art to some extent in the postmodern period) reminds us that we view art from our own distinct vantage points. Much contemporary art leans on this realization as a crutch, rather than risk testing its own tenuous value. A combined show of portraits from two very different artists could easily follow the contemporary artist crowd off that same cliff. With Lens Language holding fast to an historic African American Art theme of depicting unencumbered Black joy (a move frequently challenged in art criticism) and galleries’ post-COVID willingness to showcase art with tension dialed all the way down, the curation of Lens Language instead maximizes the affect of suddenly realizing that you are a viewer and that you might be seen too.

MadameFraankie, Head, Shoulders, Knees, & Toes (diptych), Pigment Print, 36 x 36 inches, 2023

If you’re receiving mailing list emails from TONE, you’re prepared for the joyous approach these two artists take to representation and photography. Kai Ross, formerly Melodramaticart, marks their emotional shift with this show and celebrates the love shown to them by former lovers and the joy that filters their view of the world now. Glossy digital prints punctuate the low-lit walls in the tidy studio apartment installation they’ve arranged to showcase a generous honesty without pretense. 

Madame Fraankie uses “candids and self portraits” to “capture micro-communal moments, gestures of love, and curiosity” in her large pigment prints. Children shown in the photos ease us into awareness-they gesture unconsciously, reinforcing the in-the-moment camera shake thematic in this series. In Mother, little girls touch shoulders and a mother’s waist for balance, while mother gently holds a wrist in warning and protection as they climb out of a minivan onto the street. Baby claps, smiles, and stretches toes to a parent’s playful reach in the diptych Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes. Young girls also adjust and rearrange as they hold court in the front yard, first arrayed and doubled up in chairs, then circled on a blanket in Conversations By The Cactus and Watermelon & a Blanket respectively. The relationships vary between images, but all show run-of-the-mill family and friendship moments.

Kai Ross, You’ve Got the Makings of a Lover I, Digital Print, 2023

In Kai Ross’s studio apartment installation, a carefully curated bookshelf and tchotchkes illustrate the tenant in a “mixtape”. Apart from the pile of balled up tissues at one side of the couch (which were gone on a second visit), this gallery exudes tidy stability, another flavor of Black joy and success related to the shine in AfriCOBRA painting and fashion. On the wall in front of the couch they have projected a video that shows individuals speaking about relationships fondly. They remark on how much one learned from being with an unnamed subject, how they came to realize gender wasn’t a deciding factor. It’s sweet. It’s heartwarming, though very personal to seemingly “walk in on”. The people in the video then point you toward the “portraits” hung around the apartment that “document” different subjects in glossy digital prints. Songbird fills the image with a young girl in glasses, a cover-alls-dress combo and bare feet. The photographer’s backdrop sets her up as larger-than-life celebrity for her Jet or Vogue cover story. Ross celebrates inner life confidence that comes with being affirmed in the world.

MadameFraankie, The Rotation, Pigment Print, 36 x 36 inches. Edition 1 of 3. Photo by Sophia Mason

Kai Ross, left Pretty Girl, Digital Print, 24 x 36 inches. Kai Ross, right A Visual Mixtape, Digital Print, 48 x 96 inches. Installation photo by Sophia Mason.

While Kai Ross hones mood, MadameFraankie’s square images with narrow black borders point to documentary photographers’ contact sheets (such as those Ernest Withers used to choose which images he’d send to publishers) signal to objective journalism. This clicked after spending time in front of The Rotation and Pass the Dutchie (Pon the Lefthand Side). In these two images, 20-30 somethings delicately meet to pass a joint as they relax outside (one person pictured wears a TONE gallery t-shirt). One comes to TONE aware that media in the United States consistently portrays African Americans as violent or wounded. Some young people’s institutional introduction to photography of African Americans will be through pictures published in textbooks to describe Reconstruction and then violence perpetrated on peaceful protesters in the Civil Rights Movement with maybe one image of Frederick Douglas in between. MadameFraankie’s artist statement explains the tension viewers come into the gallery with—“MadameFraankie’s work draws comparison of these documented themes [communal moments, gestures of love, curiosity] against the social and ethical norms within American Culture as a means to reshape black narration and photographic storytelling”. Here documentary images tell another story “documentation” doesn’t typically cover.

Kai Ross’s message is almost impossible to ignore, for good reason. After we’ve heard and seen the video, Ross draws us in close with a notebook she’s left open on the perfectly made bed. Without spoiling the storytelling, Kai leaves a message written to their lover, their crush, on view. But the note’s pacing slowly reveals, by speaking genuinely to this unnamed “you”, that you the viewer could also be the intended recipient of the effulgent acceptance. It’s a fitting exclamation point to a collection of work that takes for granted non-binary and non-heteronormative relationships. Kai unlatches a window that might otherwise be shut for us to voice affection, and hear it uncritically from our loved ones, even if we’ve gone separate ways.

MadameFraankie, Let Him Cook (diptych), 2023, print. Photo by Sophia Mason

MadameFraankie achieved a similar spatial embrace through different means with the diptych Let Him Cook. With a little camera shake, the left photo of the pair shows a young child at a play kitchen pulled out of his imagination by a sound outside the frame. When seen with the title an auntie appears to our right. In the subsequent image, he returns to his play at the kitchen. Like the kid, we are pulled out of our play and hear a grown-up’s double-edged chide and affirmation. She returns him to his creative work and immediately draws us into the goings-on of the family in the house. 

Suddenly we’re receiving some love from behind the lens too. The whole show is an infectious embrace of the people and gestures that buoy black life and feed artistic creation. But like Lavar Burton’s PBS persona used to say, don’t take my word for it. Go feel Lens Language for yourself.

Lens Language is on view through December 12th at Tone Memphis

MadameFraankie is an artist and musician based in Memphis, TN.

Kai Ross is an artist in Memphis, TN.

S. Mason is an artist and curator in Memphis, TN whose work engages research, text and textiles. When not writing she can be found looking for one of her pairs of scissors.