During the Super Bowl today I gathered with 700 other fans to listen to a talk by artist Carrie Mae Weems at the Portland Art Museum, where there is currently a traveling retrospective of her work on display “Three Decades of Photography and Video”.
She spoke for an hour and a half fluently weaving in and out of phases of her work, her creative process and her general motivations. She spoke like a true artist. Meaning she took full responsibility for all the work she’s ever done, described them with elegance and lots of wiggle room, and left one wanting for more.
In starting her lecture she showed many slides of other artist’s works that she admires, that she believes she is in a dialog with, and reminded the audience that artists should always discover and seek out their “next of kin”. Basically she understands that you do not work in a bubble, but you have an affinity with a family of artists and to make friends with them. This is something my mentors have drilled into me for ages, and was thrilled to hear her validating this. So often I attend talks by artists and they never mention their influences, or the general dialog with other artists they are entertaining – this is a weak point for sure. If an artist, like Weems did, can share the channel of ideas that gets them to their conclusions we consumers of art open up our understanding of their work, and therefore gain a far bigger appreciation of the united front that art history and art can be. It’s really not all a mystery, and people aren’t reinventing wheels, it’s more simple and powerful than that.
Some of the stand out features of her work is her nimbleness – she’s not just a film and photo artist. She’s dabbled in sculpture, made some provocative performance work, and runs a public art campaign against violence in her current hometown in Syracuse, NY called Social Studies.
While her work carries the color card – it’s weaved throughout her work, at each point in her projects and process – she emphasized that to reduce the work to “work about race” is wrong. Indeed it’s more about identity and a woman trying to engage throughout her life in the right discourse, at the right time and with the right elements. And yes, she’s black, ergo the blackness of the imagery. There are mirrors in her work (the ultimate symbol of identity exploration), at the start of her career and the most recent work she is doing. The first presence of the mirror was in the “Ain’t Jokin'” series. The picture in question has a young attractive black woman (Weems) looking into a mirror, and the title is:
This is identity being explored vis a vis race. The later work, a video she screened for us titled Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon, showed a white woman holding a mirror and the video was about women and aging. So the identity exploration continued, this time vis a vis age and women.
Humor is also a thread throughout her work, and after hearing her speak I understand that her humor is deep-seated and, as she sees it, a sophisticated way of critique.
Lastly the importance of the body runs the course of the thirty years of her work. She mostly uses herself as a model because she is mostly embarrassed to ask anyone else to participate. I actually see her participation in the work critical, and it provides a stronger link to the discussion of identity she grapples with, and makes the work more honest. Her latest museum series where she is posing as a doppelganger in front of major international museums is apropos. She called them meditations, where she was experiencing the architecture and questioning their roles. It seems her meditations have paid off, as she has deservedly been granted a traveling exhibit of her work to some major institutions in the US.
I hope her work is embraced more abroad, as her thoughts on aging and identity are pretty universal. I also hope that the work she is doing now on the story of aging for women gets loud – the thought of an aging woman has not had much coverage in art history, much less in popular discussion. An honest exploration of this stage of life for women is overdue.
What are the risks that one takes at fifty-five that you don’t take at thirty-five because the game has changed, the world has changed, you’ve changed. Putting yourself through certain kinds of paces has changed. Do I need to do that anymore? I’m not really sure—sometimes yes, sometimes no. This raises a very deep question about mature women and about how one looks at mature women. I think that recently there was a part of me that for a moment felt very frayed and very vulnerable about revealing myself, of showing myself, and also concerned about who would be interested in looking, because I’m making work that I’m hoping other people will look at, that I don’t want people to turn away from. Will people turn away from me? Am I not the thing that causes them to look? – Carrie Mae Weems in interview with PBS Art21
PS. I was bummed to hear her mention a couple times in the lecture about how she was “broke”. It still doesn’t make much sense that a committed artist of her valor is broke. She was just awarded in December the State Department Medal of Arts – the first ever along with Jeff Koons, Kiki Smith, Cai GuI-Qiang. If you are reading this and can afford to support the artist, her dealer is Jack Shainman Gallery in NYC;)