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The photos of Carrie Mae Weems are on display at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery through Jan. 7

Susan Saccoccia | 10/12/2016, 12:24 p.m.
Often with humor, and almost always with beauty and style, Weems investigates and asserts power to those excluded from it ...
“The Considered, See Bergman” by Carrie Mae Weems (2012). Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

A good story can recast the familiar and reveal something new. Artist Carrie Mae Weems tells a good story. With text, photographs and videos, she recasts the familiar into new stories in which people excluded from power claim their ground.

“The Louvre – Paris” by Carrie Mae Weems (2006)

“The Louvre – Paris” by Carrie Mae Weems (2006)

Often with humor, and almost always with beauty and style, Weems investigates and asserts power on the home front, in the art world, and in society at large. Some works are as joyful and empowering as folk tales. Others are scathing correctives. Coursing through all is a palpable sense of self-respect.

Also telling a good story is the exhibition of 52 works by Weems on view through Jan. 7 at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art in Harvard Square. Entitled “Carrie Mae Weems: I once knew a girl,” the show presents works by Weems from the past two decades of her career. Curated by gallery director Vera Ingrid Grant in collaboration with Weems, the exhibition follows Weems as she asserts power through art.

As a photographer, Weems works mainly in black and white and frequently includes overlays of text in her prints. The show begins with six images from her 1997 series, “Not Manet’s Type,” including one that is a sort of manifesto. While posing as a nude, she declares herself unsuited to this traditional female role in western art and states, “I knew, not from memory, but from hope, that there were other models by which to live.”

As if in response, prints on the opposite wall, from her series “Slow Fade to Black” (2009-11), show blurred figures of performing artists Josephine Baker, Lena Horne and Katherine Dunham.

With its black and white palette, her handsome imitation of a Jackson Pollock drip painting, “Splattered 1” (2016) is a sly insertion of race into the white male dominion of mid-century modernism. Nearby her silkscreen print, “Splattered 2” (2016), overlays a vintage photo of plantation-era black field workers with Pollock-style droplets of paint, mingling African American and art history.

A former dancer, Weems often performs in her photographs and videos, in which the figure of a woman is not an object of male interest but a subject taking charge of her own experience. In this, Weems is kin to Lorraine O’Grady, 82, who in images of wit and flair cast herself as a stylish party crasher challenging boundaries of gender, class and race. Another major artist exploring this terrain is Lorna Simpson, who uses models rather than inserting herself into the scene.

Identity and power

In the ’80s, while teaching at Hampshire College in Northampton, Weems developed her much admired “Kitchen Table Series” (1990), which has just been published in book form. Weems cast herself as the protagonist in this fictional narrative, which in photographs and text explores a woman’s relationships with her lover, friends and children as they mingle around the kitchen table.

Weems’ photograph, “The Considered, See Bergman” (2012), evokes the artist’s abiding interest in personal identity. While alluding to the 1966 movie “Persona,” Ingmar Bergman’s study of the female psyche through an anguished encounter between two women, this image shows a radiant woman (Weems) smiling into a mirror held by an admiring girl.