‘Witness’ testifies to the power of Carrie Mae Weems’ vision at Fraenkel Gallery – SF Chronicle Datebook

Among the first images viewers see at “Carrie Mae Weems: Witness,” a new survey of the American artist at Fraenkel Gallery, is 2006’s “The Louvre.”
In the photo-performance work from Weems’ “Museum” series, she stands clad in a black gown, arms slightly bent at her sides, back to the camera facing I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. Her posture is strong yet suggests motion, as though staring down the architectural signature of this bastion of European art.
It is an image that feels symbolic of Weems’ journey as a Black female artist confronting a museum canon that historically has not included many Black female artists. In her career, Weems has grappled with that extensively, along with Blackness, gender and other forms of otherness imposed by the art world. Though she is one of the most important living American artists, the trajectory of her career demonstrates that struggle: It was only in 2014 that she became the first Black woman to have a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, a year after being awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.
The figure Weems plays in “The Louvre” recurs throughout the show and in several of the artist’s series. We see her again in 2006’s “Piazza del Popolo I — Ancient Rome,” from the series “Roaming,” where she walks through the Roman city square. In 2015’s “American Monument 1,” from the “American Monuments” series, she faces the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Weems previously confronted the third president when she cast herself as Sally Hemings in 2001’s “The Jefferson Suite.”)
Weems, 68, has described this character as a witness in the works, one whose presence helps us confront the relationships among history, architecture and spaces and how those things can reinforce existing power structures.
“My girl, my muse, dares to show up as a guide, an engaged persona pointing toward the history of power,” Weems states in the exhibition’s online catalog. “She’s the unintended consequence of the Western imagination.”
The character serves almost as an anchor that pulls us back to the question.
“This woman can stand in for me and for you; she can stand in for the audience, she leads you into history,” Weems continues.
Gallerist Jeffrey Fraenkel said the exhibition was initially planned in chronological order, which would have placed “The Louvre” further back. But when Fraenkel and artist liaison Ola Dlugosz laid out the original plan, it was decided that the themes in Weems’ work better revealed themselves when different series were in conversation.
Also revealed through this mix is how much Weems has driven the ongoing conversation around those relationships in art, as well as how she has influenced artists ranging from Catherine Opie and Xaviera Simmons to Beyoncé, whose 2016 “Lemonade” music video heavily draws from aspects of Weems’ aesthetic.
Weems, 68, grew up in Portland, Ore., and moved to San Francisco in 1970 to join Anna Halprin’s San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop. At age 20, she received her first camera as a birthday gift and eventually began studying photography at City College of San Francisco.
Weems, who now lives in New York, became represented by Fraenkel in early 2021 and curated an exhibition of Diane Arbus photographs for the gallery this summer.
“Witness” includes early work like “Family Portraits and Stories,” a project she began in 1981 using her own family as subjects.
Pieces from perhaps her most well-known series, the “Kitchen Table” series, command focus in the first gallery room. They show Weems in her character as a sensuous and vulnerable wife, mother and woman standing over a man who reads a newspaper in one untitled work and plays a harmonica at a table in another.
The empowered Weems presence in those pieces is in stark contrast to the print and text works “You Became Mammie, Mama, Mother, Then, Yes, Confidant-Ha/Descending the Throne You Became Foot Soldier & Cook,” from the 1995-96 series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” Weems took archival photographs of enslaved people and other Black Americans from the 19th and 20th centuries and positioned the title text over them, repositioning their images in the canon of photography and American history.
Her 2010 work “Mahalia” from “Slow Fade to Black” comments on Black women’s absence in the popular culture narrative; a blurred image of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson speaks to the fading of these women’s legacies in our consciousness.
Among the most performative works are “The Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm and Martin” and “Mourning,” both from the 2008 “Constructing History” series. Weems staged college students to re-enact moments of 1960s social upheaval, creating highly theatricalized tableaux that have a quality of religious pageantry to their presentation of death and grief.
The final room includes the single-channel video installation “People of a Darker Hue” from 2016. In the 15-minute work, the artist commemorates Black men and women killed by police, juxtaposing color footage of city streets during the day with black-and-white protest footage and voice-over narrative explaining circumstances of the deaths. It is a powerful piece to end on, bringing the arc of the artist’s career into the present moment.
“Carrie Mae Weems: Witness”: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Through Nov. 13. Free. Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St., S.F. 415-981-2661. fraenkelgallery.com
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