Carrie Mae Weemsby Matthew Biro
Jack Shainman Gallery | October 29 – December 10, 2016
Since the late 1970s, Carrie Mae Weems has pursued a socially engaged form of creative practice, examining how identity is constructed through concepts of race, gender, and class, while interrogating the processes by which we produce a sense of self in relation to both private memory and public history. Moving seamlessly between photography, video, installation, and performance, her art simultaneously utilizes and criticizes documentary strategies and the assumption that camera images are neutral. Weems’s new exhibition turns the spotlight firmly on the contemporary mass media, exploring the conflicted representations of African Americans in today’s screen-rich environments. There is a postmodern overtone here, suggesting that visual depictions are manufactured, the bearers of stereotypes and ideologies. The show, however, also affirms the modernist belief that a committed photographer can reveal something true and vital about the current moment.
Two new series from 2016 confront the ongoing murder of black citizens at the hands of police. A systemic injustice that the proliferation of cell phones and body cameras has now rendered impossible to ignore, these homicides have produced an ethical crisis that currently defines our nation. The “Usual Suspects” consists of ten black-and-white silkscreened text panels listing the names of recent victims, their physical data, and the time and place they were killed. Commemorated in separate works, these individuals are united by a common text, ending with the words: “Suspect killed. To date, no one has been charged in the matter.” Through their dispassionate, quasi-bureaucratic language, Weems’s panels emphasize the brutal facts of their public murders, and remind us of the objectifying avenues of communication—from the discourses surrounding the law and justice systems to the news media and Facebook—that reify the victims, while also calling attention to their plight. The other series, “All the Boys,” comprises archival pigment prints rendered in bluish grisaille portraying young African Americans wearing hoodies. Although photographically based, their portraits have been blurred slightly, giving them a painterly effect. In one, a young man is presented from the front and side, as if in a three-quarters-length mug shot. In the others, a single frontal portrait, partially obscured by a red rectangle—a metaphor for how color prevents us from seeing the person—is paired with a text panel that simulates a redacted police report. And by blurring the overall images, obscuring the faces, and partially occluding the texts, Weems creates more general allegories out of specific tragedies, demanding justice without exploiting the particular visages of those who have lost their lives.
While Weems’s new prints and silkscreens memorialize the victims of police violence without directly using their likenesses, All the Boys: Video in Three Parts (2016) refuses to eschew this risky tactic. A mixture of staged and documentary footage, the video appropriates police and cell phone footage depicting the murders of Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, and others to evoke the horror of an everyday reality where black people are killed for minor infractions. Through crowd shots filmed with a telephoto lens, the video’s initial sequence emphasizes the camera as an instrument of surveillance and control. In its final sequence, Weems depicts organized mourners and ruminates via a voiceover on the unbearable nature of what she has witnessed. The violence of representation, the video suggests, must be balanced with the necessity of directly picturing evil and resolutely commemorating the dead.
A new series of nine color inkjet prints on canvas, “Scenes & Take” (2016) seems slightly more optimistic. They all present Weems, shot from the side or behind, as she contemplates the opulent sets built for contemporary TV shows such as Empire and Scandal, series created by prominent black producers, showrunners, and directors, that pay attention to African-American lives. Texts, printed next to the photographically based images, articulate fragmentary plot synopses centered on female characters who ponder the changes—both good and bad—that have taken place in the world of entertainment. The sets are scattered with the equipment of film production, thus exposing the cinematic apparatus. Standing in as both an example of and a witness to the growing success of the black creative class—some of whose most important members are either female or gay—Weems creates representations that celebrate the victories that have taken place, while suggesting that the struggle must continue. She also implies that a full sense of what it means to be black in America today can only emerge from interplay between the real and the imagined.
Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me (2012) an eighteen-and-a-half-minute mixed media video installation, explores Weems’s relationship to history, art, and social activism, giving insight into her self-conception as a political artist. Consisting of a dark room with heavy, blood-red curtains framing an empty theatrical stage, it uses video projection on an invisible Mylar sheet to create a succession of ghostly images that fade in and out. As blues and pop songs play, a series of voiceovers evoke the Civil War, arts activism, athletic competition, and the mental anguish of a figure bent on revenge. Moving image sequences, which include appropriated news footage, historical reenactments, and isolated figures, appear, along with a staged tableau that recreates Marcel Duchamp’s disturbing installation, Étant donnés (1946 – 66). Connecting the various sections is the presence of Weems, playing a morphing trickster figure, who embodies different characters ranging from an androgynous personage in an old-fashioned frockcoat and top hat to an awkward Playboy bunny. Alternately displaying herself to the audience and turning her back, the artist seems to exist as both the subject and the object of the spectacle she creates, reminding her viewers of how the creative individual depends upon and produces a past that is personal and collective at the same time. Open to a diverse range of sources and strategies and unafraid to mix the private with the common, the political artist, Weems suggests, inserts herself into contemporary events, revealing her struggle to make sense of them, as well as the ethical touchstones that guide her response. Given the results of last month’s election and the sexism, xenophobia, and racism that contributed to Donald Trump’s shocking upset, Weems’s embrace of diversity in her art, and her insistence on maintaining an attitude of dialectical openness and acceptance, seem prescient, vital, and even more necessary today.
MATTHEW BIRO is Professor and Chair in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Anselm Kiefer and the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1998), The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin (2009), and Anselm Kiefer (2013). His reviews of contemporary art, film, and photography have appeared in Artforum, Contemporary, Art Papers, and The New Art Examiner.