Late last month, the National Gallery of Art announced the acquisition of its first work by artist Carrie Mae Weems, a photograph of three African American girls lying on the grass with flowers in their hair. One of them gives the camera a slightly suspicious, perhaps even defiant glance, as if to defy a centuries-long history of being objectified by art and photography.
The National Gallery isn’t exactly renowned in the art world for its collection of work by women, or by African-Americans, so it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the MacArthur-genius grant laureate Weems finally had a place in the country’s putative national collection. And yet, the Gallery seemed intent on downplaying the photograph’s provocation.
The round, black-and-white photograph, “May Flowers,” comes from a 2002 series “May Days Long Forgotten,” which references not just May and flowers, but the tradition of celebrating worker’s rights on the First of May. Weems, whose work is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York, often uses historic photographs, or references to historical photographic styles, to foreground the way African-American identity has been constructed (or suppressed) through images. By inserting young girls with dark skin into a history of pastoral art, by making them slightly resistant to the viewer’s gaze, and by referencing a holiday associated with struggle and revolution, Weems develops more than a pretty picture of sweet children on a spring day.
Now consider two descriptions of the same image. On its Web site, the National Gallery says the photograph “not only recalls 19th-century portraits of childhood and the rituals of spring, but also is a compelling statement about race and class in American society.” Whereas the Guggenheim, in the catalog for the Weems retrospective, says: “Weems mimics Soviet propaganda, which often used happy children as signifiers of a positive future through acceding to the dictates of the state.” No mention is made, at the National Gallery, of the larger, revolutionary implications of the series, or the systematic decimation and forgetting of workers’ rights over the past few decades.
An accidental omission? Or is Weems still too provocative to be brought into the inner sanctum without some careful editing and scrubbing of her ideas?
The strength of Weems work, evident throughout the Guggenheim’s 30-year survey, lies in its subterranean resistance. It is often tough and intractable, but rarely in direct ways. There is nothing rude or loud or blunt about it. But it leaves the viewer unsatisfied in ways that nibble at the mind over time, making many of the images unforgettable.
The haunting stare of the central figure in “May Flowers” is only one example. In the late 1980s, Weems made a series called “American Icons,” which depicted blatantly racist figurines in otherwise innocuous domestic settings. A pair of Sambo and Mammy salt-and-pepper shakers is seen on a pristine kitchen counter, and an ashtray that uses racial caricatures is photographed under a homey table lamp in someone’s living room.
These photographs are moody interior landscapes, and the mood is almost seductive enough to erase or neutralize the presence of the offending objects. Without inserting any actual human beings into the images, Weems constructs an all-too-human trope of racist thinking: These images are too nice to be about race. The lamp and end table, the kitchen counter with its whisk and ladles and half a cantaloupe, become like people, soothing, full of smiles and grace, harboring bigotry almost undetectable among their finer manners and gentility.
Weems’s early work is more social, and narrative, than her more recent images. For her first major series, made from 1978 to 1984, she turned the camera on her extended family, producing images that were meant, through trenchant honesty, to confront dominant narratives about the breakdown of the black family in America. White America, and the political class led by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), had created a thesis to explain all of America’s racial troubles: It was a problem internal to the black community, located in the family, or lack of family stability. In response, Weems simply asserted the presence, the troubled vitality, of her own family, which isn’t perfect yet exists as a living refutation to any easy hypothesis about African-American culture. The images are neither sentimental nor critical, a remarkable feat of objectivity for a young artist.
Mixing text and photography was important to Weems almost from the beginning, which made sense: If your objective is to unmask how we think about images, then you must engage with the interpretive apparatus of language, rhetoric and ideology. The 1987-88 series “Ain’t Jokin’’ used pithy, almost poster-art combinations of language and imagery to create what feels like a guerrilla public-service campaign about racist humor. “Black Man Holding Watermelon” shows just that, a young African American man with a watermelon in his outstretched arms. The effect of combining image and text is almost chemical: The caustic words meet the acidic image and suddenly everything is neutralized. It is just a young man with a watermelon, and what’s funny about that?
By 1990, in what may be her most famous collection of work, the “Kitchen Table Series,” Weems herself emerges as an inscrutable, often lonely presence in her photo-narratives. Using text and images — all of them shot in the same room, under the same lamp, at the same bare table — Weems creates a drama of love, loss and personal growth. A woman meets and falls in love with a man: “He was an unhardened man of the world. She’d been around the block more than once herself, wasn’t a tough cookie, but a full grown woman for sure.”
Their mutual independence is almost insurmountable: “She felt monogamy had a place but invested it with little value. It was a system based on private property, an order defying human nature.” The text accompanies images of two middle-age people at a table, sometimes engaged with each other, sometimes lost in their own private space. They argue about social justice, try to give each other space, they fight, get tired of fighting and break up.
Rather like the earlier “American Icons” series, the “Kitchen Table” images do much of their work through inanimate objects. The photographic space is a carefully dressed stage, with every reticent but evocative element making a statement. Maya Angelou’s classical coming-of-age tale, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is referenced late in the series with a bird cage. A bottle of wine, a glass, an ashtray and a telephone in the foreground become talismanic markers of loneliness, isolation and waiting. The room is never the same, evolving and changing from image to image in a way that suggests the invisible but profound changes in the inner life of the characters. The series ends with Weems sitting in the same room, playing solitaire, with the bird cage empty behind her and a box of chocolates open on the table.
Everything that is hard, resistant and productively unsatisfying about Weems’s work comes together in this coda to the “Kitchen Table” series. Despite how much she seems to reveal about herself, we never know who she is. There is a claustrophobic intensity about the drama that makes it deeply troubling. And there is a foregrounding of the material world as a substitute or analogue for human feelings.
That strange, mute materialism becomes even more haunting in photographs made in 1993, in Africa, which depict places important to the slave trade. Stairways, door frames and windows of old buildings are photographed with scrupulous care but no overt sense of emotion. But every one of them suggests a punctured space, a portal, an enticement to believe that one might pass through the material world into some kind of enlightenment about the wellsprings and lasting traumas of human cruelty.
The cover image on the Guggenheim catalog shows Weems standing with her back to the camera, in a long, black dress, on a dark-sand beach, with an enormous sky above. It is a powerful image which recalls a long history of the solitary individual seen against a sublime backdrop. But it, too, is part of a series, “Roaming,” in which the photographer has placed herself in various settings in and around Rome, always in the same position and the same black mournful black dress. Weems has written, “This woman can stand in for me and for you; she leads you into history. She’s a witness and a guide.”
Maybe. But the larger impression is one of intense, despairing solipsism, of an artist constantly taking in new sights and visions in a desperate effort to make sense of herself. Like the changing pictures on the wall and objects on the table of the “Kitchen Table” series, the material world is meant to give us a clue, but now it just seems to be a backdrop, perhaps random, perhaps just a painted screen with no reality at all.
These images, made in 2006, cast a pall on the whole show. But they linger with you. This is the rare exhibition that feels truly unfinished, ending on a note of genuine confusion about the world and our relation to it. Rather like the curious mix of sadness and silence conveyed by the three young girls in the new image just acquired by the National Gallery, Weems’s oeuvre feels unresolved. If she hadn’t established herself in her earlier work as a feisty, independent, no-nonsense character, these last photographs would make you want to reach out and ask, ever so gently, “Are you okay?”
Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through May 14. For more information, visit www.guggenheim.org