Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video @Guggenheim

JTF (just the facts): A total of 196 individual photographic prints and texts from 21 separate projects, variously framed and matted, and hung in the annex galleries on the 2nd and 4th floors of the museum. The show also includes 4 videos, shown in the galleries and in the New Media Theater in the basement. The works on view were made between 1978 and 2011. The show was organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, and a catalog of the exhibit was published in 2012 by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and Yale University Press, available for $50 in the Guggenheim shop (here).

The following lists detail the various projects on view, the number of component parts on display, their processes, and their dates:

2nd Floor, Main Room

  • Family Pictures and Stories: 8 gelatin silver prints and 1 gelatin silver print diptych, with audio, 1978-1984
  • Ain’t Jokin’: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1987-1988
  • American Icons: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1988-1989
  • Colored People: 4 toned gelatin silver print triptychs, 1989-1990
  • Kitchen Table Series: 20 gelatin silver prints and 14 screenprint texts, 1990

2nd Floor, Alcove Room (with custom black and white wallpaper)

  • Sea Island Series: 3 gelatin silver prints/1 text, 2 gelatin silver prints/2 texts, 2 gelatin silver prints/1 text, 3 gelatin silver prints, 7 screen print on ceramic plates (in case), 1991-1992
  • Slave Coast: 3 gelatin silver prints/1 text, 1 gelatin silver print/1 text, and 2 gelatin silver prints/1 text, 1993
  • Africa: 3 gelatin silver prints, 3 gelatin silver prints/1 text, 3 gelatin silver prints/1 text, 1993

Fourth Floor (series of connected spaces)

  • And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People: 1 dye diffusion transfer print, 1991
  • From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried: 33 chromogenic prints with etched texts on glass, 1995-1996
  • Not Manet’s Type: 5 inkjet pints, 1997
  • Dreaming in Cuba: 4 gelatin silver prints, 2002
  • May Days Long Forgotten: 2 chromogenic prints, 2002
  • The Louisiana Project: 5 inkjet prints, 2003
  • Roaming: 4 chromogenic prints, 2006
  • Italian Dreams: 1 digital color video with sound, 2006
  • Museum Series: 1 chromogenic print, 2007
  • Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment: 1 digital color video, 2 inkjet prints, 2008
  • Afro-Chic: 1 digital color video with sound, 2009
  • Untitled (Colored People Grid): 11 inkjet prints/31 colored clay papers, 2009-2010
  • Slow Fade to Black: 3 inkjet prints, 2010-2011

Basement

  • Coming Up For Air: 1 video, 2003-2004

While no photography was allowed in the galleries, the installation shots below were provided by the museum. Photos: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

Comments/Context: Carrie Mae Weems’ long overdue retrospective at the Guggenheim is an opportunity for both celebration and the gnashing of teeth. The exhibit marks both Weems’ first major museum show in New York and the first retrospective for an African American artist at the Guggenheim, and yet, while reveling in these well deserved accomplishments, it’s hard not to quietly ask why it took so damn long – she’s one of contemporary photography’s most consistently incisive practitioners, with more awards, decorations, commissions, and fancy residencies than most artists will ever dream of receiving, and yet it took thirty years to properly welcome her here.

This retrospective began its life back in 2012 at the Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville, and has wound its way around the country with intermediate stops in Portland, Cleveland, and Stanford, before finally arriving here in New York some 18 months later. In the past few years, the Guggenheim has done an admirable job of bringing strong female photographers to the forefront – major shows of the work of Catherine Opie, Francesca Woodman, and Rineke Dijkstra have all shoehorned themselves into the Guggenheim’s awkward annex galleries. Sadly, Carrie Mae Weems gets no better treatment in this poorly designed space, her show cut down to fit into the wandering galleries, its flow interrupted by Italian Futurism in the rotunda. While Jennifer Blessing has done her best to make the most of a bad situation, it’s nearly impossible for any thoughtful progression or curatorial logic to withstand the unfortunate distractions of these rooms. Luckily, even with these hindrances, Weems delivers enough powerhouse artistic moments to keep any attentive viewer appropriately mesmerized.

The show follows Weems’ career in roughly chronological order, and so begins with her MFA thesis work, a group of black and white photographs of her family and friends that stands in direct opposition to the notion of the deterioration of the African American society. It’s a layered portrait of raising families and working out relationships, seen with supportive warmth, and it smartly sets the stage for many of the themes than run through Weems’ work, from the breaking down of racial stereotypes to the complex roles of strong independent women. Subsequent projects from the late 1980s find Weems playing a bit rougher, with harsh visual jokes about prejudice (like the black man holding a watermelon), countertop still lifes of Sambo and Mammy salt and pepper shakers and ashtrays in otherwise ordinary suburban homes, and triptychs of tinted portraits deftly pointing out the nuances of the word “colored”.

One of the most important insights derived from this retrospective is just how innovative Weems has been over the years when it comes to combining text and imagery; when the ultimate history of photography is written, she deserves to be recognized as one of the finest and most durably original users of text ever to pick up a camera. If you think you’ve seen Weems’ Kitchen Table Series before, perhaps in a single stand alone image here or there, think again; this exhibit reproduces all 20 images from the project in sequence, with 14 panels of interspersed text, and seen together, it’s a certifiable knockout. In isolation, I found I had actually been missing two important parts of this project – the rich interior monologue of the protagonist found in the snippets of narrative text, and the progression between the images as the story of her life unfolds. Using the common set up of a kitchen table lit by an overhead lamp, Weems plays an evolving set of nuanced roles, from a woman in love to a woman left behind, a woman among friends to a struggling mother, and ultimately to a woman confident in her own skin. Every step in the journey resonates with an intimate note of revealed truth, heard in your ears as you read the accompanying texts. Savored in sequence, it’s a bravura performance on a number of levels.

Given the constraints of the space, Weems’ other projects from the early 1990s get short shrift. The Sea Island Series, Slave Coast, and Africa all take a more anthropological look at the roots of the African-American experience, from the folklore of the Gullah culture (like the box spring stuck in the tree), to the more architectural images of slave holding facilities of Gorée Island and the sculptural mud brick buildings of Djenné, once again enlivened by text, stories, and word derivations. These projects are a kind of unpacking of identity, a reconnection between past and present.

Upstairs on the 4th floor, the show continues with another Weems blockbuster. There are hardly words to describe the glory and uncomfortable horror that is From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried; it’s simply an undeniable masterpiece, and once again, if you’ve seen this work in an abbreviated form or as isolated single images, you’ve truly missed out on its goosebump inducing power. Starting with appropriated images which Weems then tinted a deep angry red and overlaid with text, it’s the insightfully ugly story of the black experience in America, from scientific experimentation and slave work, to whippings and jokes and countless other injustices, all endured with grim determination and undeniable dignity. The two bookended portraits of a proud Mangebutu queen with her elaborate architectural hairstyle are like a roundhouse punch to the gut, or worse. It’s the kind of unflinchingly astonishing artwork that will stay with you your entire life.

Weems’ more recent work (from the past decade or so) suffers the most in the twisting hallways and alcoves of the Guggenheim’s space, and the show becomes more of a loose sampler than a true retrospective in these later years. If there is a common theme to this disparate work in both photography and video, it is Weems’ taking on the role of a silent witness, standing with her back to the camera in severe black dresses or period costumes, the weight of her very presence forcing us to reconsider our derived opinions about everything from Cuban field workers and Louisiana plantations to Roman ruins and international museums. While this motif is powerful, it feels overused when seen in this way, as if it was the easiest way to imprint her world view on a series of otherwise disconnected commissions and residencies.

In many meaningful ways, this exhibit isn’t the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective we might have wished for, but after all is said and done, this show delivers two transcendent artistic experiences (the complete Kitchen Table Series and From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried), and seeing these thought provoking artworks in their complete form should be enough to vault this exhibit to the top of anyone’s list. With these memorable moments as anchors, the rest of the retrospective is simply further supporting evidence for Weems’ consistently penetrating brand of societal critique, and a not-so-gentle reminder that it shouldn’t have taken us New Yorkers thirty years to appropriately recognize an incandescent talent like hers.

Collector’s POV: As this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Carrie Mae Weems is represented in New York by Jack Shainman Gallery (here). Weems’ work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade. Recent single image prices have ranged between roughly $3000 and $33000.

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Read more about: Carrie Mae Weems, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Yale University Press

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