Carrie Mae Weems: Down Here Below @Jack Shainman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 photographic works, variously framed, and hung against white walls in the divided main gallery space, the two smaller side rooms, and the entry area.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 1 set of 7 archival inkjet prints in oval frames, 2022, each sized between 111×14 and 24×30 inches, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • 1 set of 5 digital archival prints with convex glass glazing, 2019, roughly 117×37 overall, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • 3 archival pigment prints, 2021, each 60×84 inches, in editions of 3+2AP
  • 1 set of 15 archival inkjet prints, 1991, each sized 30×25 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 set of 39 digital archival prints, 2019, various sizes, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • 1 set of 9 archival inkjet prints, 2020, panels of various sizes, roughly 66×62 inches overall, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 inkjet on paper, 2010, roughly 48×36 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 inkjet on paper, 2020, roughly 25×20 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 installation comprised of a megaphone, a chair, and a box, 2021, sized 97x90x32 inches, in an edition of 10+2AP
  • 1 set of 6 archival inkjet prints, 2020, each panel sized roughly 12×18 inches, 59×75 inches overall, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 triptych of archival inkjet prints, 2021, each panel sized roughly 36×45 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 triptych of archival inkjet prints, 2020, roughly 36×73 inches overall, in an edition of 3+2AP

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Most of the artworks on view in this Carrie Mae Weems gallery show were made in the past three years, giving us a chance to catch up on some of what she’s been working on (and thinking about) during the tumult of the pandemic. And while these new pictures don’t coalesce into a single integrated artistic statement or unified perspective, it’s clear that she has been responding to the changing events and circumstances of this unsettled time in her own ways.

The show opens with a moody atmospheric preamble, with two groups of rounded prints in black frames that reach skyward in search of direction. One group follows the pinprick of the North Star (set against a dark cosmic backdrop) through a telescoping progression of small to large and back again, like a comforting heartbeat or the substituting dots of an ellipsis. Another set of images offers a dramatically cloudy sky that slowly becomes smaller and smaller as it falls down to where we stand; titled “Down Here Below”, it seems to offer a connection between a broader state of roiling natural mystery and the rhythms of the everyday. Seen as a pair, the two series feel almost introspective in their search for continuity, the expansive differences of scale somehow measuring our prevailing uncertain emotions.

This distanced perspective is followed up with a blunter interaction with what we’ve been facing of late. In three large scale photographs, Weems documents boarded up storefronts in Portland, Oregon, where mass protests recently filled the streets. Plywood covers the windows and black paint erases the marks of slogans and graffiti, creating silent facades that edge toward blocky abstraction. The works echo with muted, unmoving emptiness, the lockdowns, riots, and marches now merged into one enveloping absence.

Many of the works on view come from a series that Weems began after the death of John Lewis, the influential civil rights leader and long-serving member of the House of Representatives. Employing some of tinting aesthetics she has used throughout her career, the works gather images together into tightly hung clusters and groups (in blue and pink) that play off one another, much like John Baldessari’s image constructions. One group features images from the funeral of Medgar Evers, with tearful faces, white gloves, and floral wreaths, while another links images of protestors being chased by snarling dogs, pummeled by water cannons, and beaten by police with clubs. Still other groups feature the Lorraine Motel (where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated) and protest marches on the edge of breakdown. The works indirectly celebrate Lewis’ legacy, while connecting the collective action of past and present.

Another theme that repeats through several of the works on display is the idea of speaking up or taking action. Weems offers us the choice to sit or stand while speaking through a megaphone in a sculpture made of plywood (drawn from her recent installation The Shape of Things at the Park Avenue Armory), and nearby, Mahalia Jackson sings out with powerful force (in an older tinted work) while a bank of microphones stands ready for a new set of voices. These motifs are then linked back to a multi-image work Weems made in 1991, where large scale Polaroids of still life objects were matched with short phrases, turning each into an agent for protest or change, like ” A Precise Moment in Time” (a clock), “A Hot Day” (a metal fan), “A Song to Sing” (an open hymnal), and “An Informational System” (a typewriter with a blank page). Some thirty years later, the image/text combinations are still evocative, and as seen in the works from this past year or two, the struggle for change continues.

The last installation in the show repurposes a blurred image of a young man in a hoodie from her series All the Boys (as seen in her 2016 gallery show, reviewed here). Here she has multiplied that single figure out into dozens of repeated figures in various sizes, the cloud of pictures installed in a back corner of the gallery. When Weems originally used separate single images like these (and paired them with police arrest sheets), her results were specific, naming names and memorializing those lost. In this iteration (titled “Repeating the Obvious”), that specificity is exchanged for grimly anonymous aggregation, making the very real threats facing young Black men feel that much more pervasive.

Building on her 2014 career retrospective at the Guggenheim (reviewed here), this gallery show (and the one that preceded it) have provided compelling evidence of Weems consistently challenging and reconsidering the narratives that surround Black life in America. In many ways, the sophistication and urgency of her work haven’t changed, but our current national situation has perhaps made the power of what she has to say more visible. The best of her works bite with tenacity and seriousness, exposing and scrutinizing truths that we have been determined not to see, and several of these new efforts provide that same sense of insistent astringency. Against the dampened backdrop of the pandemic, her tone seems to have shifted slightly, balancing the weight of loss and the silent inward turn of isolation. The call to action is still there, but it’s now got an edge of muted wistfulness that has turned her head to the heavens.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show (many of which consist of multiple images/panels) range in price from $30000 to $150000. Weems’ work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $5000 and $240000.

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