Carrie Mae Weems.
Look at the name. Say it out loud. Examine it. Tear it down. Sexualize it. Build it up. Stare some more.
We have witnessed many powerful introductions to LOOK3 over the years, but we have seen few deliveries that would seem to pose more questions than answers. What did I see? What does it mean? Where do I fit in the conversation?
That last question is particularly important, because Carrie Mae Weems carefully aims to place you in her work. She is a photographer. NO. She is a conceptual artist. NO. She is a documentarian. NO. She is a performer. NO. She is an educator. YES.
NO. You are unsure. Weems is carefully designed by many disciplines to engage viewers—nay, participants—across an entire spectrum of beliefs and opinions. You get the feeling that her work is judging you and your own perception of art, history and context. And while she precisely targets all three of those constructs, it’s the sting of history that leaves us red in the face.
Slavery. Gender. Objectification. Placement. Perception. Revision.
By her own admission, Weems is more of an architect than anything else. But before building her projects she absolutely tears them down. Gets to the core. Understands the message. Creates meaning. Looking at her work could make you proud or it could make you uneasy. It does introspect.
Deborah Willis was an amazing moderator. No one could have been more prepared to navigate through the many layers of Carrie Mae Weems. Her questions were masterfully terse and academic, as if she knew that planting the seed was enough to allow her counterpart to water and grow the narrative. You could tell that they were friends. The Paramount needed that connection between the two to help explore their own relationship to the widescreen before them.
Everyone can relate to the kitchen table series because we’ve all been there. We can relate to the conversations and the displays that take place in such a confined space. It might mean something. But not everyone can relate to the history or experience of black people in America. Few people have lived it, and perhaps fewer truly “get” it.
Beyond my own control, a carefully framed set of squares and ovals lowered my head. Painted red and played in succession, they were appropriated stills of black soldiers and the archetype of mammy behind etched glass—each one captioned “HOUSE” or “YARD” or some other impertinent, pre-fabricated American classification. I was embarrassed, although I had no reason to be.
“What do you want the viewer to feel?” asks Deborah.
A rare pause.
“I don’t know if I want you to feel, but I want you to be deeply engaged,” Carrie responds. “I try to establish a rhythm of language that helps you move through a difficult piece from beginning to end… so that the language becomes an anchor for the viewer, to assist the viewer from one difficult experience to the next. My responsibility is to CONSTRUCT. The work forces me to look at what I am doing with my own life.”
Suddenly the image of Carrie, seated at the kitchen table with a mirror pointed at the camera, makes sense. You have to confront your own notion of self and accept or deny what it is that you actually see. Her work is colorless, revealing the true aspects of human behavior.
The woman dressed in black is a common protagonist in Carrie’s work, playing witness to environment, surrounded by physical constructs. That, too, makes sense, until you realize that her demonstrations go beyond witness.
They are calls to action.
To ad-lib Carrie Mae Weems’ wonderful control over the English language is rather stupid, but I’m left with no choice beyond my own memory to account for her final dissertation on the importance of subject matter. It actually turns the mirror on herself. She left the Paramount saying that, “everyone writes about Picasso because there are one million books him, but who will write about Lorna Simpson or Joe Crawford?”
In this case, it was more of an answer than it was a question.
(Story by Joe Santa / Corbis)