For those of us across the pond who missed Carrie Mae Weems’s recent US touring retrospective, which included three decades of work and a stop in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, before ending its run at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last May, it was a pleasure to find a distillation in London, in a small but elegant display at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery. Though Weems’s work is well-known to North American art audiences, it’s been little-seen in the UK, and this also served as her long-overdue first (if partial) survey show in this country.
Weems came of age in the 1960s and early ’70s in the US, amidst the Civil Rights Movement and second-wave feminism. When she got hold of her first camera in 1973, a 20th birthday present, she was working with a Marxist organization in San Francisco where she lived with her young daughter. Like many artists questioning cultural myths and social conventions around this time, it was through photography that she found a way into the complicated power structures and histories she wanted to redress. Since the 1980s, most often via conceptual photographic series, Weems has recalibrated the visual cues through which we read and understand gender, class and, most powerfully, race. If this makes her work sound didactic or antagonistic, it’s neither. Weems has an intractable belief in the capacity for compassion that inflects her work with wit and generosity.
The eight pieces on view in the main space – as compared to the over 200 objects in the retrospective – span 25 years of work. The earliest images are from the artist’s ‘Kitchen Table Series’ (1990), probably her best-known work. It’s Weems’s own kitchen table that is the repeated centrepiece in each square, black and white picture, the camera closely framing one end, the table lit in an uneven splash from a single shaded hanging bulb in the foreground. Weems embodies a character not unlike herself: a black woman and mother at the centre of an unfolding dramatization of domestic reality. In the larger series, a loose narrative plays out across images and text panels (none of which were included in this show), as we watch her silently interact with different figures – friends, a lover, a daughter – or, in the most vulnerable images, sit alone, her posture and gaze betraying a shifting sense of self and self-worth. In the triptych on view, Kitchen Table Series: Untitled (Woman with friends), two female friends enclose her, and move with her from grief and tears, through silent retrospection, and finally to animated laughter. Across the room, we see Weems again, 16 years later, in The Edge of Time - Ancient Rome (2006), overlooking the slopes of a densely built up Roman landscape from a hilltop. Here, her back is to us, and the image, both in the scale of the print and the space depicted, has expanded. The claustrophobic walls of the personal and domestic have given way to centuries of civilization. Her posture and her gaze have shifted; this time she stands poised and assured, looking out across history.
Between these versions of herself, two images from Weems’s earlier ‘Colored People’ series (1989-90/1997), which show close-cropped portraits of black children washed in vivid hues, are here reworked. The addition of text beneath each references the colour of the piece while re-framing the meaning of terms often used to denote different skin-tones, shifting the register from pejorative to pride: ‘Golden Yella Girl’ captions the profile of one, her smiling mouth full of braces, bathed in bright yellow, like sunlight. Along the same wall Untitled (Colored People Grid) (2009–10), reworks images from the series in a large-scale grid in which portraits are scattered among monochromatic colour blocks in browns, oranges, blues, pinks and purples. It’s easy to see in it a lively revision of associations of colour as basis for discrimination (and a version in the lobby of the US Mission to the United Nations in New York reinforces this optimistic interpretation). But there’s something more critical at play, too, with these young faces trapped in, or camouflaged by, the Modernist grid. This ambiguous dynamic of erasure and visibility is echoed in Weems’s most recent work, Color: Real and Imagined (2014), in which a similar grid of screen-printed colour blocks overlays a blurry publicity still of Dinah Washington.
Though lucid and beautifully curated, the show felt too small for the breadth of a 30-year practice (and one that often hinges on seriality), especially for audiences who might not have seen Weems’s work before. Still, for those who wanted more, there was a reading room beyond the offices where visitors could get a taste of other work through books, including the retrospective catalogue, and films on a monitor. One of these, Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment (2008), is a stunning montage of found footage interspersed with tableaux-like restagings in a classroom setting of some of the most violently oppressive acts in American history, such as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the killing of Kent State students in 1970. Their collective impact, Weems suggests, continues to be felt by a country poised to choose between a black man and a woman to be candidate for its next president. Like her photographic work, the film is elegiac but unresigned, a beautiful struggle against cynicism and anger to find new forms for progressive understanding.