Today from our partners at Art Practical we bring you a review of Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Author Danica Willard Sachs writes, “Weems’ main project is to raise questions about the relationship between an artist and her history, and the ethics of representing that history.” Though the exhibition closed a few days ago, Daily Serving’s recent considerations of art that examines race, class, and culture make this article a perfect way to end the week. The review was originally published on December 16, 2013.
For the past thirty years, Carrie Mae Weems has confronted issues of memory, race, gender, and power through her diverse, narrative photographic and filmic practice. Loosely organized around three central themes in Weems’ work—the construction of identity, the power of place, and the legacy of history—this long-overdue retrospective explores the artist’s investigation of family relationships and gender roles, and the interplay of race, gender, and class within political systems. Weems’ unrelenting focus on these issues is mirrored by an exhibition that is equally dense and at times overwhelming, even as the art it contains feels very prescient about race and racialized violence in our present moment.
A highlight of the exhibition is a gallery devoted to the entirety of Weems’ iconic Kitchen Table Series (1990). Combining the languages of conceptual and performance art by pairing fragments of narrative text with staged photographs, the work features the artist as a modern black woman who must continually renegotiate her position in response to societal expectations. Made in Weems’ own kitchen, each large-format gelatin silver print places the viewer at the end of the titular table to watch the protagonist’s encounters with love, motherhood, and community. A single, harsh light source—a utilitarian pendant lamp—and each scene’s tight, confined composition put the viewer in a position somewhere between a confidant and an interrogator, highlighting in turn how the domestic space of the kitchen shapes the everyday challenges faced by women. This work clearly marks a pivotal moment in Weems’ practice. In many of the later works featured in the exhibition, the artist returns to issues of race, gender, and the power of space, drawing on her own experience to perform for the camera.