Sunday, January 26, 2014

Carrie Mae Weems retrospective at Guggenheim Museum

January 24-May 14
Carrie Mae Weems
A Broad and Expansive Sky—Ancient Rome (from Roaming), 2006
Chromogenic print, 73 x 61 inches (185.4 x 154.9 cm)
Private collection, Portland, Oregon
© Carrie Mae Weems
Carrie Mae Weems
Untitled (Man and mirror) (from Kitchen Table Series), 1990
Gelatin silver print, 27 1/4 x 27 1/4 inches (69.2 x 69.2 cm)
Collection of Eric and Liz Lefkofsky, promised gift to The Art Institute of Chicago
© Carrie Mae Weems
Photo: © The Art Institute of Chicago
New York Times critic Holland Cotter's otherwise admiring review of Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video (herechides the Guggenheim Museum for not devoting its central, spiraling rotunda to Weems. Right now, if you visit the Guggenheim, you'll find that sloping spiral roped off in preparation for the upcoming Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe and that show's crates filling much of the ground floor.

The original Weems retrospective, curated by Kathryn Delmez, opened in September 2012 at Nashville's Frist Center for the Visual Arts. According to Cotter, the Guggenheim omits some works included in previous stops along the show's tour, and the exhibition has been broken up into galleries scattered over a few floors. Cotter points out that, for a first New York retrospective of Weems's career, thirty years worth of work, the limited selection and spatial placement give this Black American artist, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, short shrift. Cotter's argument seems all the more reasonable and urgent once you appreciate Weems's entire mission, which is all about visibility--to underscore and creatively document presence and experience against racist, sexist omissions and erasures.

She has done this, magnificently, in a variety of ways. Often putting her own body--at once, deific and down-to-earth--front and center in her photography and video work is the boldest stroke. Whether facing us head-on and meeting our gaze with her own or, by turning her back to the camera, slipping into iconic anonymity as in her dramatic Roaming series, Weems answers a denying world with defiance as if to say, Without my presence, you could not have come to be what you are.
I took a tip from Frida who from her bed painted incessantly--beautifully while Diego scaled the scaffolds to the very top of the world. -- from Weems's text for Not Manet's Type (1997)
Weems claims space for African and Afro-Atlantic realities, for people of African descent, particularly women, and our families and communities within society and its art.

Weems also exerts an artist's right not just to make new stuff but to appropriate existing objects--say, J. T. Zealy's daguerreotypes of "Negroid types" from slavery days--sealing these excavated memories under glass etched in white text, seizing control of how they will be seen and understood. She brings marginalized history to the table just as, in The Kitchen Table Series, she brings everyday eros to the table. Because she locates herself or others in historical time and in dreamtime and in something eerily combining the two--see her 2008 video Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment--we come to understand that we can do and often do the same.

The Guggenheim show might not have everything it could have or take pride of place in the main gallery, but it does educate and inspire (Guggenheim visitor information). See also Brooklyn Museum's Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey (closing March 9).

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