Peggy Levison Nolan’s first solo museum exhibition alludes to years’ worth of the artist’s drives with her youngest daughter, Stella. All of Nolan’s seven children populate her oeuvre, especially in this showcase at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, but Stella appears twice in the passenger seat of her mother’s car—once in an enlarged print where she holds up a tiny camera, and more tenderly in Untitled (Stella with Rose), c. 1990. Here, Stella is baby faced, irked, and evidently exhausted, lolling in her seat, one leg capriciously hanging out of the window—limbs get heavier in the Florida heat. Her brow is almost furrowed. Her T-shirt is stained. The window crank, blurred by the shallow depth of field, gleams in the sunlight. Meanwhile, the rose she’s holding is unwilted and fresh; we can almost imagine its sweet scent.
Nolan’s father gifted her a Nikon when Stella was three; she was immediately “hooked,” she’s said, and began making images of her growing family, the intricacies and intimacies of their lives in South Florida’s working-class neighborhoods. Her camera was always present; this show, “Blueprint for a Good Life,” spans her early work in black-and-white: her kids and their friends dance, make birthday cakes, and fall into each other’s arms, first mud-streaked, then restless, then body-pierced. With equal love for her medium and her children, Nolan reinforces their growth; before her lens, they blossom into young adults.
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Speaking of blooms: In Stella with Rose, the preteen seems resigned to the ongoing presence of the camera. Visibly irritated, she remains participatory, even confrontational, staring directly at her mother. The space between Nolan’s documentary impulse and maternal care is singularly slippery here, and so most striking: how clearly the photographer in her saw the just-right light, the unexpected prop, and the brevity of the moment, while, as a mother, she might simply have said, wait, let’s take a photo with the flower.