Devin Allen’s photos in Spaces of the Un-Entitled gesture at the loneliness of poverty
In the stark, black-and-white promotional photo for Spaces of the Un-Entitled, a playground swing-set frame without seats stands in front of graying clouds that hover above two hollowed-out rowhomes. Like the other shots by Baltimore photographer Devin Allen currently on display at the Peale Center, this photo does more than document a devastating neglect. It possesses a lyrical sweep; the swing is at once real and a ghostly pentimento that stretches off the print, gesturing at the lives not pictured.
Allen, whose haunting, affirming images of the Baltimore Uprising appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine in 2015, has described his compositions as “at once landscapes and portraits.” The pictures in Spaces of the Un-Entitled, which depict vacant homes, focus less on “spaces” and more on the feeling of absence they produce.
In one photo, the head of a teddy bear pokes out from under a cinder block. In another, a doll lays sprawled out on a concrete backyard. Another: an empty booster seat sits out on a stoop. Prominently missing in these photos containing signifiers of living are people themselves.
Clumped in a pile in the center of the gallery are some Nike sneakers, a dollhouse, a VHS of Toy Story, a football commemorating a bygone year’s City-Poly championship game—all remnants of real lives, dug up by Allen and curator Jeffrey Kent from abandoned homes across the city.
The found objects, which often spark connections to the people who owned them, here feel distinctly lonely. The objects’ owners remain anonymous, inaccessible—their presence only hinted at.
In one untitled photo, a ubiquitous, handwritten “Sell Me Your House 4 Cash” flyer comingles with the green city-owned stamp of the Vacants to Value program—the presence of one perhaps suggesting the failure of the other. Meanwhile, spray-painted across the boarded-up front door, the words “Starbucks here?” feel less like a real immediate threat than a sardonic joke at the expense of city leaders’ limited imagination.
“Gentrification” is a word that appears in the artist’s description of the show but feels here, as it often does, like the wrong word. It’s one that is frequently lobbed to encompass a totality of systemic failures, and to explain the increasingly unequal dichotomies in cities like Baltimore: at once disinvested and oversaturated, unaffordable and insufficient. Allen’s images don’t so much show the effects of gentrification as pinpoint its impotence and inapplicability to these “spaces of the un-entitled.”
Photo by Devin Allen in Spaces of the Un-Entitled
The show has a searching quality, like there’s something unspeakable just beyond the reach of words (or images, for that matter). There are many half-built structures whose incompleteness feels meaningful: a cinder block perimeter, stairs missing a handrail.
Allen is technically working within a genre: deindustrialization, the internet, and the accessibility of digital cameras have spawned infinite blogs and Instagram feeds devoted to black-and-white photos of urban decay (fetishized as “ruin porn”). Allen’s photos have the opposite effect—they are intensely personal and empathetic. Many of them are shot from the backyards of the homes, in a way that makes the viewer feel like they are surrogates for those not pictured, rather than gawkers on the outside looking in.
There is also the fact that the world that Allen is depicting, and its emotional language, is conjured directly from his lived experience. In a performance on Feb. 8, Allen stood on a platform and recited the names of friends he has lost over the years, as an unseen gun fired paintballs at his chest. He then took a question from the audience.
In a separate room at the Peale, a series of photos have been painted over with vibrant, colorful scenes by the artist Chris Wilson. Soft, shimmering bodies now joyously fill the frame: dancing, dirt-biking, stoop-lounging. The previously empty spaces recede, flattened into wallpaper as Wilson’s figures fill in what was missing.
Collaborative Photo Painting with Devin Allen and Chris Wilson
Spaces of the Un-Entitled is on view through March 22. For more information, visit the Peale Center’s website.
Exhibit photos by the author and Cara Ober.