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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Carrie Mae Weems. Untitled (Woman and daughter with makeup) (from Kitchen Table Series), 1990. Gelatin silver print, 27 1/4 x 27 1/4 inches (69.2 x 69.2 cm). Collection of Eric and Liz Lefkofsky, promised gift to The Art Institute of Chicago. © Carrie Mae Weems. Photo: © The Art Institute of Chicago.

Upon the basis of my experience of the photographs of LaToya Ruby Frazier at the Brooklyn Museum last June, I was looking forward to “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (through May 14).

After all, Frazier had studied with Weems, and I was hoping that she’d derived her muscular vision in part from her mentor. Moreover, this is a major opportunity to study Weems’s art, with more than 120 works in the show—primarily photographs but also texts, videos and an audio recording.

The show was originated at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, where it was curated by the Frist’s Kathryn Delmez. The Guggenheim’s presentation of it was organized by their senior photography curator, Jennifer Blessing, with the aid of Susan Thompson, and the catalogue includes a foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and essays by Delmez, Franklin Sirmins of the Los Angeles County Museum, Robert Storr of Yale, and Deborah Willis of NYU.

According to Holland Cotter, in his highly favorable review on the front page of the NY Times’s Friday visual arts section for January 24, this show has been cut to nearly half of its original size in Nashville. He felt it should have been hung in its entirety in the main rotunda of the Guggenheim, instead of on only two floors of the annex galleries (plus the spaces known as Monitor 4, Thannhauser 4, and the New Media Theater).

While I would call Weems’s photography far superior to any & all of the solo exhibitions of contemporary artists that I’ve seen in the Guggenheim’s rotunda for years and years, I also note that her show is getting more than twice the space of the collages of Robert Motherwell, which until January occupied only one annex level.

True, the Motherwell show covered only one 10-year aspect of his output, while the Weems show is a 3-decade retrospective, but I still felt I was able to get a reasonably good idea of her scope, outlook & interests from the work that I was able to view.

Born in Portland, Oregon in 1953, Weems bore her first and only child, a girl named Faith, in 1969, at the age of 16. Then she moved to San Francisco to study dance, and continued her arts schooling at the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, where she took her BA, adding to it an MFA from the University of California, San Diego.

Given a camera as a birthday present in 1973 by a boyfriend, she used it first to assist in her political activities. During this period, she was a union organizer, but decided she wanted to pursue photography as an art after she became familiar with “The Black Photography Annual,” a book of images by important African American photographers.

Dividing her time between California and New York, she discovered the Studio Museum in Harlem, and studied photography there with Dawoud Bey, an African American photographer known for large-scale color photographs of adolescents.

She began to exhibit in group shows in 1981; her first solo exhibition, of “Family Pictures and Stories,” was held at the Multi-Cultural Gallery in San Diego in 1984. In the years since, she has mapped out an impressive terrain for herself with photographs that depict herself and her family, as well as the world that surrounds her in all its beauty, ugliness, endless terrains and boundaries.

Her basic themes are race, class and gender--with showing what it means to be female and African-American, both in terms of whom she is surrounded by and what.

Her subjects are almost always Africa or African Americans, but, as the museum’s press release explains, she wants “people of color to stand for the human multitudes,” and for her art to resonate with audiences of all backgrounds.

She has done this so well that last year she became the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. At present, she and her husband, Jeff Hoone, divide their time between Syracuse and Brooklyn.

Now, to the work in the exhibition—or, to be more specific, the photographs. Although the show also includes videos, mostly projected in the theater, I consider videos a branch of the performing arts, as opposed to the visual arts, and I’m afraid that I’m not a professional critic of the performing arts. Theater and movies are diversions for me, not vocations, so, with few exceptions, I don’t review videos.

I also have to confess that I don’t go to museums to read, but to look. I may not be as devoutly devoted as Darby Bannard is to art as a source of pure pleasure. I can see room for adulterating it with story-telling and even political commentary, but I really want the image to do the talking. If it can’t tell me what it wants to say, then no amount of incorporated or accompanying text will make it any better as a narrative or a political statement. I am, after all, not a literary critic, either.

That being the case, I found that most of the writing that accompanies so many of Weems’s photographs—the many plaques, little and big, with texts of various kinds—was redundant and even distracting (regardless of how poetic it often was). When the writing has actually been superimposed upon the image (as fortunately occurs only relatively rarely in this show), I am lost entirely.

Most of the photographs, on the other hand, I found easy to relate to, all of them high-caliber and many, superb. The show begins with the topic of Weems’s first gallery show, “Family Pictures and Stories” (1978-84).

Although the subject appears to be the artist’s own family, the photographic technique is that of investigative journalism, and the results are impressive. Two of the best pictures here are “Mom at Work,” a smiling woman in a textile factory, and “Welcome Home,” two smiling women in what appears to be a garage.

I also liked the next group, “Kitchen Table Series” (1990). In 20 photographs, the artist tells a carefully constructed story that may be autobiographical in origin, but also has wider resonance. All the photographs are narrow verticals, and all the subjects are seated at or standing around the end of a long, narrow table.

In the beginning is a woman. The pictures go on to show her apparent love affair with a man; then it seems that this is being discussed by female friends and family. A child appears. The mother teaches her how to be a woman, but in the final segment, the mother is alone again – and evidently willing to take on the world by herself.

The next section of the exhibition displays sequences from the 1990s. Two were inspired by a trip to Africa, “Africa” and “Slave Coast” (both 1993). “The Shape of Things” (from “Africa”) shows hypnotically arresting buildings, smooth sculptural shapes from Djenné in Mali that, according to the museum’s label, intrigued Weems because of their “gendered” approach, with phallic towers and deeply recessed entryways.

Equally arresting are the holding facilities on Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal, where according to tradition terrified Africans were herded on their way to become slaves in the Americas (from the “Slave Coast’ series).

The year before Weems made these African photographs, she produced an equally memorable group, the “Sea Island Series” (1992). The Sea Islands are barrier reefs and tidal islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, and the people who live there are mostly descendants of freed slaves.

Their language, Gullah (also known as Geechee) is a form of English with many words from African languages, so their culture may be closer to their ancestral African culture than other African American cultures in the U.S. The photographs don’t shout this; they merely tell a sweet and moving tale of modest little buildings and monuments, ranging from shop fronts to graveyards and roadside shrines.

All three of these series are accompanied by writing of various kinds, but more recently, it would appear, Weems allows her pictures to tell their stories by themselves—or anyway that is the impression I got from this exhibition. Four of the more recent series in it don’t have textual emendations: “Dreaming in Cuba” (2002), “The Louisiana Project” (2003), “Roaming” (2006), and “Museum Series” (2007-present).

The last three of these series have a common theme: the artist herself, seen from the back and wearing a 19th century house slave’s costume, is standing in front of whatever monument is being memorialized (and incidentally, critiqued).

I liked best “The Louisiana Project,” because the figure doesn’t only stand—sometimes, she dances. Nor are all the subjects she contemplates beyond her hopes. True, the elaborate old funerary monuments must have been erected for plantation owners, as was the famous old plantation manse itself, but these are only two of the four images on display. The other two – a clapboard house and what look like brick tenements – speak to the aspirations of people of every race and gender.

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