Wednesday, February 21, 2007

History From Below: Carrie Mae Weems

Recently, I visited the Hunter to do a review for the Pulse on an exhibit by Carrie Mae Weems. I did a fair amount of research on the American artist (above) before my visit. I also viewed dozens of her film stills and photographs on-line. None of this adequately prepared me for the way I felt upon leaving the Hunter.

Weems’ photographs, especially when placed alongside their accompanying pieces in the context of an exhibit, are visually stunning; they hold their own as fine art. As social commentary, her visual messages are conscience-searing: Weems’ work makes an ethical appeal that goes straight for the jugular.

In this, Weems stands on equal ground with her contemporaries. Over the last year, my wife has helped me to see the power of the work of Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman in a new light. Few visual artists working today produce images that are as direct and challenging as Kruger’s and Sherman’s.

Weems’ work often packs a similar punch; but there are some things that seem to set it apart. Weems' responses to injustice typically convey a sense of anger that seems pure and sincere in a way I can trust. Her images seem free of what I would call “subversiveness for subversiveness’ sake”—a symptom that, in my opinion, hinders much modern protest art by compromising the authenticity of its sense of urgency.

Weems is a true cynic. If she’s bitter, she makes her reasons plain and, as I see it, persuasive. Her cultural critiques go beyond self-righteous complacency or mockery. She asks the tough questions with bold renunciation, dismantling the foundations of social stereotypes, racial epithets, and misunderstood American tragedies with the rigor of a new historicist, and the pathos of a skilled artist. The beauty of her work, as I see it, rests in the obvious sense of courage and compassion it conveys. She boldly asks her viewers to rethink their assumptions about America’s past, while positing a compelling voice for those people whose voices have been overlooked by those assumptions. You might call Weems' work “History from Below,” to quote Stephen Greenblatt.

In 2003, Tulane University's Newcomb Gallery commissioned Weems to do a photography-based exhibit commemorating the bicentennial of the Louisianna Purchase. Weems called her entry The Louisianna Project. Among other things, the exhibit gave visual examples of how the city's social elite have marginalized the voice and presence of the largely black lower class: the billboard ad in the above photo shows a group of young black men beside a door that reads, "Board of Directors;" the slogan beneath the men reads, "Here's to the other 9-5." Weems finds it interesting how one of the city's few nods to the black lower class consists of a beer ad. Another set of images featured in the exhibit seems to address one of that class's main malcontents with its elected officials (see below). A recent New Yorker article looks at how these two issues have come to a head in a post-Katrina New Orleans.

If you've ever had moments where you've realized you might be a midnight vulture, a drunken dialer, a has-been, or simply a man or woman who's come into some hard times, Weems is also speaking for you--black, white or otherwise:

Weems is also particularly adept at comitragedy and tragicomedy:

The Louisianna Project and From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried (the three red photos above are excerpts from the latter) is a dual exhibit of Weems' work that will be at the Hunter until mid April.


Jill Somers said...

Weems' art blows me away. I absolutely love her stuff.
Think of you two often. Hope all is well. Peace.

vanckirby said...

looks great! wish i was up there to take a peek