I once knew a girl...
The Hutchins Center at Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
"I once knew a girl…." September 20, 2016 –January 7, 2017
"The onion has many skins…Peeled, it renews itself; chopped, it brings tears; only during peeling, does it speak the truth." Gunter Grass
(CAMBRIDGE, MA) In the sometime satin and velvet lined world of the visual arts, the impact of the socio-political affairs transmit messages against war, poverty, racism, injustice and imbalance. Some mimic, "art for art sake" in avoidance. Others charge in. Few peal bell-like in a charming and challenging fashion. When that happens, it's a peculiar and alive sort of thing. Such art and artists manifest themselves in a triumphant sort of way, performance like, providing quite the ride...or walk.
Prior to meeting Carrie Mae Weems face to face, I‘d encountered her work. I knew she was committed to social change...this socially responsible artist working in a host of media...with text, in fabric, with audio, photography and combined media. She'd been awarded a MacArthur, as well as the increasingly prestigious Harvard DuBois Medal. She’s applauded…and recognized on a host of fronts. That’s a draw. Still, it hardly compares to the real time experience of sharing very, very cool space with such a very, very cool artist. I found myself bobbing up and down in her presence. She’d red lettered the day, leaving the joint, filled with pilgrims, percolating, awaiting her stories.
The exhibition, mounted at Harvard's Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, "I once knew a girl…", is both time sensitive and exquisitely curated by the Gallery’s imaginative, creative, Director Vera Ingrid Grant, who continues to do it, again, and again, with works ranging from the sobering to the underground to exhibitions with somewhat classical insertions. This one is particularly unique given it’s the first solo exhibition for the house coming on the heels of the opening of the National Museum of African American History & Culture on the mall of the Nation’s capitol. Both the Cooper Gallery and Museum share the imprimatur of Ghanaian British architect, David Adjaye, designer of both absorbing and brilliant spaces. Ms. Weems has been quoted, "Let me say that my primary concern in art, as in politics, is with the status and place of Afro-Americans in our country." There…there it is...its how she rolls…how she signifies and radiates. She binds venues and missions. Here, her anthems stand alone in a surreal clearing…opera like...with quite the narrative.
This construction unfolds in three parts, a sensitizing tripartite, Beauty, Legacies, and Landscapes, with the Gallery’s statement referring to a centerpiece installation illuminating, "…our social and aesthetic vistas – both real and imagined…". There is a step by step progression, rhymed and perfectly fine and coherent. It’s a meditation. Unlike the evening news in a troubled time, nothing here dampens the imagination. It charts, and rest at points.
Early on, in Beauty, one meets a series, Not Manet’s Type, 1997, silver print with text on mat, 40x20x 2inches (framed). They are, self posed, calling the viewer to stand, read and hold time other than table talk. There are six with naked emotion and conversation. Initially they appear strangers lit by a full moon somewhere from over the viewer’s shoulders, and over those same shoulder blades arise three fascinating works, with gauze-like covering movement. There’s, Slow Fade to Black I (Josephine Baker), 2009-2011, pigment print, 49 ½ (framed); Slow Fade to Black II (Lena Horne) pigment print, inkjet print: and Slow Fade to Black (Katherine Dunham) 2009-2011; pigment print. Here, are, "re-staging’s of the presence, acknowledgement and celebration of black beauty." "It’s fair to say that Black folks operate under a cloud of invisibility", Ms. Weems was once quoted. Here it makes a difference. Here, it impacts even those who simply don’t know any better.
Entering, Legacy, a recent work, Splattered 1, 2016, acrylic paint and ink on canvas, 60 x 48 inches ventures deep into a Pollock-esque expression and technique. Nearby, Splattered 2, 2016, silkscreen and acrylic paint on paper, 24 x 31.5 inches continues a tad of the same technique loaded with pain, with anguish underling history in the American backyard…of slaves in the field…of a brutal waltz in brutal days….neatly worked.
Here, the question does a peak-a-boo around whether it should be called, "witness art", or "activist art". Undeniably, her "activist art" is driven by the artist-political player administering aesthetics in a tactical strategic fashion. "Art for art sake" doesn't rise for the bell in this round. Although she cites Fellini as an influence in her film pieces, her works here reflect far more Goddard geometry as it comes to injection of first person in image and word. There’s lots of her. Good. Well done.
"The exhibition highlights her storytelling tableaux that question our social constructs of power, race, and space and pose a more multi-dimensional concept of humanity", wrote Ms. Grant. As artist, Carrie Mae Weems is nervy and in so being, relentlessly pushing, gently tugging the visitor along…leaving one to only ones own passion…and history to its points and episodic thingies.
Tossed about by some with the likes of Mapplethorpe and Arbus, Weems works keeps watch while stretching resemblances and depth. "I once knew a girl..." heightens volume and celebrates without slowing down or pausing. Others presented with mouths open…they move words…understandable words…that just don’t come out as do those of Ms. Weems. It’s haunting. There’s whisper and at points sighs. It's hardly surprising given its maker, whatever the viewer is aligned with...or pretends to be. Art, passion and politics can't be dislodged, after all. There's a nudge here and there...offerings rather than threats. It's a house arrest of sort…things and places and eras we need never forget.
With, The Obama Project, 2016, video installation, duration: 3:05, she delves into the meta-political, of nationalism gone weird and tripped up....she's got a dialogue going...still rolling...as Barber’s Adagio for Strings fills the cove, the artist’s voice over takes one through lessons and carols of sort of the space. There the hope, promise theme, with visions, and expectations are played, dramatized. The awe appears at the ball with the awkward…celebration and revelry in the cheap seats quickly collided, and continued to do so, driving the illin’, mauled by off stage sources here alluded to. The artist’s voice over speaks to the phenom, softening it somewhat with Children’s Drawings / 1, 2016, inkjet print, 45.25x35.25x 1.5 inches framed; Children’s Drawings / II, 2016, inkjet print, 45.25 x 35.25x 1.5 inches framed, and Children’ Drawings / III, 2016,42.25 x 35.25 x 1.5 with crayon like innocence of the President’s journey. Ms. Weems shared of her work, the, "…Black experience is not really the main point; rather, complex, dimensional, human experience and social inclusion... is the real point."
"Artists take on many roles in social movements," offered Kellie Jones, Professor in Art History and Archaeology and the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University. "They are concerned citizens like everyone else after all." Still many are absent glimmers of lessons….and lurking surprises. Social demanding art has fascinated Shakespeare and many the philosopher..Aristotle, Plato, Mr. Machiavelli to name a few, and more than one or two rappers of late. There's a rough in that landscape, standing in sharp contrast to that of Ms. Jones’, holding, "Sometimes they may just bring their bodies and keep their art for another register of meanings that are apart from directly addressing social situations." Yet there are opportunities for way more to that.
With this exhibition, in this arena, this city, this Cambridge, Ms. Weems doesn’t play with witticisms or utopias. Instead, the artist rolls and wanders with familiarity. "Not all of us are the same", she says of those who would tag and bunch socially concerned artists, "…but I am absolutely committed to the time in which I live. I find it stimulating, rewarding, dynamic, painful, absolutely essential and necessary to speak to this moment."
Her, "Roaming Series" reconvenes her fascination with architecture and history and power. In 2006 she, like several other African American artists working in various disciplines, headed abroad for, "comfort", to tamper restlessness and, perhaps evolution. That is what it is. The works from that period are central to this showWe come upon new knowledge in completion with old… a willowy figure draped in black, (Weems herself) in front of iconic locales, British Museum-London, 2006-present, chromogenic print, 73 ½ x 2 ½ inches (framed) Edition L1 of 5 artist proofs; Jewish Ghetto-Ancient Rome, 2006, chromogenic print, 73 ½ x 2 ½ inches (framed), Edition L1 of 5, with 2 artist proofs; When and Where I Enter-Mussolini’s Rome, 2006, chromogenic print, 73 x 61 x 2 ½ inches (framed), Edition L1 of 5, with 2 artist proofs. These are not casual. They are brilliant. They are absorbing.
This exhibition avoids fidgeting as it captures and animates. Ms Weems stage holds, "…whether it's like doing a project with what Robert Coles sought to represent him at the Venice Finale," she says, "or working with Black Lives Matter, all to the work is ultimately social. It has deep social underpinnings because that's who I am as a person, and I don't separate my work life from the life that I live. It's what I care about....it's what's meaningful to me." Me too. And what she does new and next matters as well.
Jeffrey McNary is a Cambridge, MA based writer. His work can be found in Chicago Art Magazine, Chicago Art Review, Iconoclast, New City, Transition Magazine, and other outlets. He is a frequent contributor to ArtSlant.