NEW YORK — There are two people named Weems with a notable place in American culture — and with diametrically different approaches to it. Parson Weems, George Washington’s biographer and inventor of the cherry-tree anecdote, mythologized. That anecdote was an amiable lie about not telling lies. Carrie Mae Weems, with her camera planted at the intersection of art and politics, demythologizes. She tells often-unpleasant truths about telling lies.
The power of those truths is evident throughout “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video.” It runs at the Guggenheim Museum through May 14 and includes more than 120 items: mostly photographs, but also videos, text, and even audio. From April 25-27, the artist will preside over a weekend of artistic, political, literary, and performance events there, “Carrie Mae Weems LIVE: Past Tense/Future Perfect.”
Lies may not be quite the right word for the assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes about race and gender that Weems addresses in her work. If anything, though, such assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes can be more pernicious, if only because they’re so much harder to confront. Also, they have a half-life that makes mendacity seem ephemeral by comparison; and it’s the continuity of past and present, in ways good as well as bad, that forms the bedrock of Weems’s art. She’s that rare contemporary artist for whom the past, when acknowledged at all, isn’t a rummage sale to be picked through but a map and source of inspiration.
Nowhere is this continuing presence of the past clearer than in her series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” from 1995-’96. It consists of more than 30 appropriated images. Most are 19th-century anthropological photographic studies of African-Americans, but there are also pictures from Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, and Walker Evans. On each, she superimposes a line of text (“You became a scientific profile,” “Some laughed long & hard & loud,” and so on) and colors them. The color is red: the color of blood, the color of heat.
Weems was born in 1953, which meant she grew up at a time when race was the most burning political issue in the United States and feminism an increasingly pressing social issue. She grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where being African-American made her even more of a demographic outlier than she might have in other parts of the country. Being on the outside of society looking in is not the happiest situation for a citizen — but it can have considerable utility for an artist. While working as a political organizer, Weems received a camera as a gift on a her 21st birthday. She had found a new vocation — without leaving behind her old one, perhaps.
The feminist motto that “the personal is political” deeply informs Weems’s work, though not in predictable or reductive ways. Politics for her is as much emotional, even visceral, as it is ideological. Her work, in a sense, rephrases that motto. The political is personal — or even more, the human is political. That’s why history has such weight in her work. History is no abstraction for Weems. It consists of people and events they have lived (which so often means suffered) rather than chronologies and dates compiled (which so often means forgotten).
Soon enough Weems was taking the photographs that would form her first major series, “Family Pictures and Stories.” The family is her own: at home, on the job, out and about. In it, as well as in such subsequent series as “Ain’t Jokin’” and “Kitchen Table Series,” you can see how tightly the personal and political merge.
Note that word “stories.” Weems often provides texts for her images, and many of her series convey a sense of narrative. What place in a home is more familiar or social than the kitchen table? In the series, Weems photographs herself, portraying a kind of everywoman, seated at the table: by herself, with friends, with a man, with a child; smoking, playing solitaire, sharing an embrace, staring at the camera. Almost as important as her presence is that of a light hanging over the table. That light, which conjures up associations with a place where interrogations take place, doesn’t just illuminate. It also suggests the weight of personal history.
Reviewing Evans’s book “American Photographs,” the poet William Carlos Williams observed that “In a work of art place is everything.” Weems would seem to agree. The Georgia Sea Islands, west Africa, Louisiana, Rome, Cuba: All figure in her work. “I start every project by reading and by looking around in an attempt to develop a sense of place,” she has said. It shows.
Past is a kind of place, too, at once the nearest and most distant. There’s that famous line that opens L. P. Hartley’s novel “The Go-Between”: “The past is a foreign country.” A country, yes, Weems would agree, but not necessarily foreign. Nowhere is that more apparent than in her series “Roaming.” The title is a pun, on “roam” and “Rome.” She worked on the series while on a 2005 residency at the American Academy there.
Rome is the Eternal City, and eternity is where past, present, and future become one. In the photographs from the series Weems presents herself as a kind of muse of history. “This woman can stand in for me and for you,” Weems writes; “she leads you into history. She’s a witness and a guide.” In the “A Broad and Expansive Sky — Ancient Rome,” Weems stands on the beach, wearing a long back dress. Her back to the camera, she confronts sea and sky. It’s a very romantic image. You might even call it grandiose, until you notice how firmly she has her feet planted on the ground.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.