“Carrie Mae Weems: I once knew a girl . . .” comes in three parts: “Beauty,” “Legacies,” and “Landscapes.” Each is a variation on an inexhaustible theme: the tangled past and no less tangled present of race and gender. The show runs through Jan. 7 at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art.
The winner of a 2013 MacArthur “genius” grant and the subject of a large 2014 retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Weems is a major American artist who’s hard to categorize. She’s primarily a photographer, yes, but she makes videos, employs texts, and questions cultural assumptions in a way that makes her in some ways as much a conceptual artist.
The 52 works in the show range from the politics of art history (the 1997 series “Not Manet's Type”) to the politics of current events (a video on police brutality, another that gathers renderings of President Obama as everyone from Jesus and Alfred E. Neuman to Hitler and the Joker).
The images from “Not Manet’s Type” derive from Manet’s once-notorious 1863 painting “Olympia.” Its notoriety then sprang from the forthright nudity of the Parisian courtesan in the center of the canvas. Its notoriety now owes more to the equally forthright subservience of her black servant. In five large photographs, we see Weems in a mirror, in various stages of undress. A bed is prominent in the room. Beneath the images are texts referring to such male artists as Duchamp and Picasso. The funniest text relates to a certain well-known Abstract Expressionist: “It could have been worse/Imagine my fate had de Kooning gotten/Hold of me.”
“Not Manet’s Type” is part of the “Beauty” section, as are the three examples from Weems’s “Slow Fade to Black” series, with their blurry evocations of the African-American performers Lena Horne, Katherine Dunham, and Josephine Baker. Again we see cultural prejudices obscuring, or even effacing, individuals perceived as other.
“Legacies” includes the videos and two remarkable tributes to the African-American writer and activist W.E.B. Du Bois : photographs of a garden Weems helped design in his honor and of a new breed of peony also named in his honor. The former project evokes a rare serenity, presenting a site (a sight) outside of time and social convention. The latter images are unusual for Weems in their sheer gorgeousness.
Several of the photographs in “Landscapes” take off from Caspar David Friedrich’s classic expression of Romanticism, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” from 1817. A man faces a mist-shrouded valley, confronting the sublime as nature and wilderness. Weems enlarges on Friedrich. In a series of large black-and-white photographs, she confronts the sublime as culture and history. Wearing a long black dress, she stands with her back to the camera in front of Roman sites and various great museums: the Louvre, Dresden’s Zwinger Palace, the British Museum (that one’s more of a three-quarters stance), the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In a nice joke on masculine hegemony, a banner for a Frida Kahlo show hangs amid the PMA columns.
Out of such a simple recurring arrangement all sorts of unanswerable questions arise. Is Weems a stand-in for the viewer? Does she block the viewer from these cultural mother lodes? Is she a bridge between past and present or an emblem of a present cut off from the past? Does she gaze? Does she blink? Are her eyes closed? Or is she blind, like Homer? Matisse once described culture as “an accumulated strength.” Weems conveys just such a sense of accumulation — but of burden and barrier as well as strength. These are magnificent images, with a rare, inarticulable power.
The most powerful work in “Race, Love, and Labor,” which runs at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University through Jan. 28, is anything but inarticulable. Endia Beal’s dexterously edited 2014 video “9 to 5” consists of a dozen or so African-American women describing with sour gusto the mean-spirited, small-minded, unthinking crap they’ve had to put up with at work over the years.
Curated by Harvard’s Sarah Lewis, the show consists of work from the Center for Photography at Woodstock, in New York, concerning just what its title says: race, love, and labor. Along with the Beal video, the standout works are a pair of photographs from LaToya Ruby Frazier, like Weems a MacArthur recipient, and a photograph from Tim Portlock’s “Ghost City” series. Frazier’s unblinking eye in “Momme” could be the look Weems is giving Western culture. As for Portlock’s view of his native Chicago, it could be a depopulated war zone we see, a place as distant from Lake Michigan as Aleppo is.
Past Tense/Future Perfect: A Talk by Carrie Mae Weems will take place at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, on Dec. 5, at 4 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. For information go to hutchins
CARRIE MAE WEEMS: I once knew a girl . . .
Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, Harvard University, 102 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, through Jan. 7. 617-496-5777, www.coopergalleryhc.org
RACE, LOVE, AND LABOR
Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, 832 Commonwealth Ave., through Jan. 28. 617-975-0600, www.bu.edu/prc
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.