Classical Style: Much-anticipated Weems exhibit makes a timely debut at the Frist Center

kitchen3Earlier this week, members of the media were taken on an advance tour of the new Carrie Mae Weems retrospective at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. Weems, one of America’s preeminent art photographers, accompanied the group along with her husband Jeffrey Hoone and exhibit curator Kathryn Delmez. Any lingering doubts that any of us had about the discomforting power of this exhibit were extinguished the moment we entered a room containing the series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.

crimson2In this amazing collection, Weems took 19th-century daguerreotypes of African-American slaves and slightly altered their presentation, bathing the old gray images in crimson and including such commentary as “An Anthropological Debate” and “You Became Playmate to the Patriarch.” One of the photos showed a shirtless old man whose back was covered in welts, no doubt from the brutal lashings of a slave owner. Delmez asked the group if anyone had a question for Weems. A woman turned to the photographer and, with a quivering voice, noted that felt like crying every time she looked at the daguerreotype of the old man. “I feel the same emotions,” said Weems, who addressed the woman in a warm, comforting tone. “That’s why I worked with that image.

Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, which opened Friday and runs through Jan. 13, 2013, is an ambitious exhibit on at least two levels. First is this show’s sheer size. It is a true retrospective that contains 225 photographs, videos and installations that cover the span of Weems’ creative life, beginning with her youthful Family Pictures and Stories series from the early 1980s to her more recent Requiem to Mark the Moment collection. Spend a full and thoughtful day with this exhibit, and you will walk away with a good understanding of why this photographer is so important.

Second, the show represents an ambitious bid on the part of the Frist (and of Nashville) for national prominence on the visual arts stage. The exhibit originated here. It was Delmez’s idea, and she curated the show in Nashville. From the Frist, the retrospective will hit the road, traveling to the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. By the time the tour ends, the Frist, like the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, will surely emerge as a regional arts institution with a national reputation. The New York Times already took notice in a recent, high-profile story.  All of the attention will probably be a boon to Nashville’s entire visual arts scene.

Meanwhile, Nashville art lovers will get the chance to view photography at its level best, works that are strikingly original, well made and thought provoking. Weems has made it her mission to make the rest of us think about race, gender and equality in the United States. This work is not passive – she has not merely documented what she has seen. Rather, she has used photography to redefine our mental images of traditionally marginalized figures, especially African-American women.

family3We see this the moment we walk into the exhibit in Weems’ Family Pictures and Stories series. The subjects of these photos are Weems’ own large and extended family in her hometown of Portland, Ore. The notion of African-Americans coming primarily from broken, scattered families is shattered in the photo “Family Reunion.” Weems’ huge, cohesive, seemingly happy and multigenerational clan could, in another age, be the subject of a Norman Rockwell print.  Indeed, Weems’ African-American family is more real than anything Rockwell created.

Arguably Weems’ most important work is her Kitchen Table series, completed in 1990. In this groundbreaking collection, Weems skillfully blurs the line between photographer and subject, inserting herself into the images to create an archetypal modern African-American woman. The photos trace the life of a woman through her maturity – as a young, courted lover, a friend and companion, a mother and finally a mature woman, alone but fully in control of her own destiny. Weems has referred to African-American women as “the other of the other,” the most marginalized of marginalized figures. Her Kitchen Table series thrusts this figure out of the margins and into the center of our collective consciousness.  It is powerful stuff. It is also the work that, as Jeffrey Hoone said Thursday, established Weems as more than just a photographer. With Kitchen Table series, she’s become one of the most important storytellers of our time.

Her stories are more important now than ever. Indeed, her retrospective makes its debut at an auspicious time, when questions of equality and justice are now before the public. There is a perception that the country is currently divided between two types of people, namely, makers and moochers. Weems’ brilliant photography exposes that version of the truth for what it really is – a cartoon.

Photo credit: Kitchen Table Series: Art Institute of Chicago

Photo credit: From Here I Saw What Happened and Cried: Carrie Mae Weems/Museum of Modern Art

Photo credit: Family Reunion: Carrie Mae Weems/Jack Shainman Gallery

 If you go

Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video is on display through Jan. 3, 2013 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 919 Broadway. Weems will give a keynote address at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 22., at the Frist Center Auditorium. There will also be a free panel, but reservations are required. Call (615) 744-3999.

 For a sense of the size and scope of this exhibit, check out Nashville Scene arts editor Laura Hutson’s excellent photos.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.