Currently at the small Studio Museum in Harlem, visitors will find several black-and-white photographs by Carrie Mae Weems, each of which captures the artist dressed in a simple, long black dress. Her pose—tall and regal, with strong shoulders and a long, straight spine—rhythmically repeats itself throughout the gallery. These photographs depict Weems standing outside some of art’s most celebrated institutions, including the Louvre, the Tate Modern, Project Row House in Houston, and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome.
In each image, the positioning of Weems’ body conveys a stillness. She faces the museum buildings at a distance; the camera captures her small, placid-looking figure from far behind. This casts the structures as monstrous and impenetrable, and sets Weems apart from both the museums and the few tourists that flit through the photographs. Most often, the other visitors appear blurred, caught in the act of entering or leaving the museum. Most often, they are white.
In one photograph in front of the Zwinger Palace in Dresden, for example, the ornate, shadowy entrance to the structure is centered while the artist’s figure appears slightly to the right. The off-center positioning of Weems’ body, accentuated in a bold but anonymous black, throws off the balance of both the image and the museum. A photograph at the Guggenheim Bilbao, meanwhile, reverses the compositional pattern the viewer comes to expect. In this one, the majestic curves of Frank Gehry’s structure rise high, but it is the subject, shot at close proximity, who seems more impressive. With queenly posture she rests her arms on a banister; the black dress hugs her form.
Like a whisper, her body softly asks viewers to question the curatorial practices of these institutions. The juxtaposition of her size with that of the museums questions the legitimacy of their power. Why do they so often exclude some artists based on race, class, and gender while ushering others in with open arms? In doing so, they revise history, deleting key players. Through this show, Weems inquires into the utility of public establishments that tend to erect barriers based on race and gender. Of course, her role as an acclaimed artist further complicates such a project. She is one of the chosen few deemed skillful enough to enter.
Weems has been examining such questions since her early work. In the well-known photo narrative Kitchen Table Series, for instance, Weems similarly presents herself as subject, photographing herself in a small room, beneath a bright light at a long, bare table. As the story progresses, she forms relationships, feels love, and experiences solitude. The universality of these experiences allows her to become an everywoman who negotiates her way through society’s expectations of race and class.
Certain other works, like The Africa Series and Roaming, invite direct comparison to The Museum Series, both thematically and visually. In these series she documents politicized structures, like architectural ruins in Rome, while appearing as a silent observer. Like The Museum Series, these documentary images are subsumed by a soft and indirect resistance. Weems is never loud. Still, she prods the visitor to ask questions that matter.
Many of these images are currently on display as a part of a thirty-year retrospective at the Guggenheim. From a curatorial perspective, this exhibition falls short. It’s half the size that it was when it appeared at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. In the words of New York Times art critic Holland Cotter, it serves as “a career sampler when it has the space and resources to do so much more.” One might even read The Museum Series as a quiet critique of such a retrospective. The Studio Museum, whose stated mission is to facilitate “the dynamic exchange of ideas about art and society,” proves a fitting home for the gesture.
Carrie Mae Weems: The Museum Series is on view at The Studio Museum in Harlem through June 29, 2014.