Weems talks about art, social changes and the 'Kitchen Table'

2010-04-10T23:20:00Z Weems talks about art, social changes and the 'Kitchen Table'By L. KENT WOLGAMOTT / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Carrie Mae Weems tells stories in her photographs, often becoming her own subject. But those photographs aren't just pretty pictures.

Instead, Weems uses her work to explore cultural, social and political issues, particularly those dealing with representation of women and African-Americans. Sometimes those pictures take the form of domestic scenes, as in her pivotal "Kitchen Table" series. Sometimes she uses archival photographs, restages famous images or creates her own tableaux, perceptively commenting on race, sex and gender.

Born in Portland, Ore., in 1953, Weems has taught at colleges, has her work in major exhibitions and museum collections and has won numerous awards, including the Anonymous Was a Woman Award (2007); Skowhegan Medal for Photography (2007); Rome Prize Fellowship (2006); and the Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant in Photography (2002).

Weems has work in both "Shrew'd: The Smart and Sassy Survey of American Women Artists," the Sheldon Museum of Art's biannual invitational exhibition, and "Better Half, Better Twelfth: Women Artists in the Collection," the rehanging of the museum's permanent collection that features work by only female artists.

Last month, Weems was at Sheldon to talk about her work. Before the talk, I sat down with her in the "Shrew'd" galleries for an interview. Here is that conversation with some condensed responses:

Do you like being in these shows that are all women or all this?

It doesn't really matter to me. I think the most important thing is that the work gets seen. Whether I'm in a context with all women or a context with all men, which is very rare, I don't mind.

I sometimes think with all women or some other designation, work gets put together that wouldn't necessarily be seen that way.

Yes, I know. But I think it's actually important to have a sense of what women artists are doing. Because I think that still, for the most part, even in 2010, the vast majority of museum shows and gallery shows and gallerists are pretty much dominated by men. So having a sense of what women are up to, for me, frankly, is very, very important. I don't necessarily think of it as "women's work," but I do think it's really important for me to have a sense of what women are doing, because I don't get a chance to see a lot of their work everywhere. Although, of course, many of the women in this show are very well-known women, so, more often than not, I'm able to see their work.

I've known Renee Cox, for instance, for many, many years. This is the first time I've seen these pieces, and it's a real development from where she was 10 years ago. So it's really lovely to see, and it's very smart in this context. It's interesting. In a lot of ways it's not just a show that engages women artists, but it's also, in many cases, images that are also about women. It sort of cuts both ways in an interesting way.

In your work, you appear and there's a lot of stuff about women and roles; where did that come from? What's the root of that?

Do you mean the root of "Kitchen Table"?

Yes, "Kitchen Table" is about women...

Do you mean how did it emerge? You know it was an interesting process. ‘Kitchen Table' is still considered by many to be a seminal piece of work made in the ‘90s, along with Cindy Sherman's ‘Film Stills.' It's really wonderful to be in that kind of proximity to an artist I admire so greatly.

There are many ways and many reasons that "Kitchen Table" came about. It's not a slam, bam, thank you ma'am thing. It's really a story. A lot of that has to do with the context of the ‘80s and the context in which I was working not only as an artist, but as an educator, a teacher. Noticing the way my students were working, how women were imaging themselves in the ‘80s. Young women were really afraid to image themselves. They'd only been able to image themselves as demure sex kittens or women slammed up in the corner or someplace, sort of hiding their faces and never quite asserting themselves as confident young women. I noticed that in direct relationship to the kinds of photographs my young male students were making. When I asked them to do self-portraits, they would sort of turn towards the camera and look at it. So some things started to happen there.

Of course, we were coming along at a moment when a lot of feminist theory, a lot of critical theory was being bantered about. Many of us were engaged in that theory, in theoretical discussions. Laura Mulvey had written that really seminal article about the male gaze, etc. The thing that I understood that was also going on, and I had a conversation, indeed, with Laura Mulvey about this, was that black women and women of color had ultimately been left out of her analysis. Wasn't that interesting?

It wasn't her responsibility. It's my responsibility to analyze. I can't really leave my stuff, my issues around representation, in the hands of somebody else. It's my problem. It's my issue. It's my resolve. It's my fantasy. It's my desire that I need to really construct and negotiate. Although I like to think I'm a bit more democratic. I like thinking about lots of different kinds of people. That's, I think, maybe the advantage of being black. You understand absolutely what's always left out and therefore, then, how to be more inclusive when you get a chance to do something.

‘Kitchen Table' really arose out of that moment, of sort of issues around representation, of issues around what women were already doing, of trying to form a kind of corrective to what women were already doing and to reposition and question the way in which black women then had imaged themselves. There were many, many factors that were going on. I think that's one of the reasons the work resonates with so many people, and why it's such a rich body of work. I could tell you more, but I won't.

Just looking at it, I've thought "that's life." Everybody has a kitchen table.

That's the space. Everything gets resolved in that space. It's a beautiful piece really, you know. It's so simple in its construction. It's so minimal. There's a table, there's a lamp, there's a chair. There's a man, there's a woman, there's a girl, there's a child. Maybe there's a glass of wine and a couple packs of cigarettes. That's it. It's very bare bones.

Then I look at the Art21 piece, where you are directing a number of young women, and it's a lot more elaborate.

It's interesting, I'm still kind of working that piece out. Really, in the end, because I'm always working with the economy of means because I don't have any money, is to figure out how to do things simply and elegantly, without a lot of pomp and circumstance, without a lot of people. I don't like being around a lot of people. I don't like directing a lot of people. So trying to keep things really simple and elegant is my preferred way of working. Because then it has a certain kind of immediacy that one loses. ...

I was at the Met the other day and I won't tell you the artist because you will know him. The Met threw a gazillion dollars at this project that should have just been a tiny little black box theater thing that cost a couple thousand dollars to present. Not on the stage of the Met that cost $50 million to present. It didn't make any sense. It was just a joke. It was a serious waste of money. It was a waste of talent. It was a waste of time, and it was offensive because I knew it could have been such a beautiful gem in the right context.

I think there's something then that's really important about artists understanding what they do. I'm not like Jeff Koons. I'm not an industrialist already with $50 billion in the bank, with my own collection of Picassos and Renoirs who hires a hundred people in his New York studio to turn out stuff for him. That's not what I do. That's what he does. I'm not a manufacturer. I'm an artist, and I'm just a small one with a small ‘a.' Knowing that's true is actually very important.

But as an artist with a small "a," you've had an impact.

Maybe. Something is going on, I'm not sure what. But something is happening.

To me that says you must be doing something that resonates with people, with the culture.

I do hope so. I'm certainly not trying to waste my time or anybody else's. I mean that really sincerely. I'm always moved that people are moved by the work. It gives me great satisfaction to know my daughter hates me for a reason, you know what I mean. I'm very committed to my work.

There's a political element to your work that a lot of people flinch away from. Why do you do that? Is it your personality or do you feel some need to present it so directly?

What do they say, God takes care of little children and fools? I'm probably very foolish. But I don't really know how to be any other way. The ideas I'm working with are ideas I'm committed to. I don't know how to soft-shoe them. I don't know how to make them more palpable. I just never knew how to be one of those girls. I wish I knew how to be that sometimes, but I don't know how to be that way.

For me, the thing that's interesting about the work are the many levels the works function on. I'm interested in the aesthetic qualities, the artistic qualities, the way something is made, the way light is used in a photograph, which of course is what photography means. The way it renders the subject, the space, the dimensions, the compositions. All those things about how something is made is really interesting to me.

I spend a lot of time, actually, trying to figure that out. The other day I made some photographs and spent a lot of time. Then I realized that I'd really messed up because I had to pay attention to one essential detail in terms of composition that would have changed everything. As far as I'm concerned, three days of work slid right on out the door because I didn't pay attention to something that was crucial. That stuff is really important to me.

Then there are the ideas and layering the ideas. What's "Kitchen Table" about? Well, apparently it's about that. Then there are all these other things, too. Using light as a source of interrogation. Using the lamp as a source of interrogation. The dynamic interplay. She's always stationary and the world moves around her. All these thing that really interest me. Sometimes I'm surprised I made it.

When you conceive one of your photographs, does it start an idea, the image, because it is so layered?

I think I always start with a sense of something I would like to make, an image I would like to make around an idea. The ideas are always there, right? You always start with the idea. How to render that becomes the primary thing. Sometimes the idea gets left behind, it gets built into something, it gets morphed. Generally I'm starting with ideas about images and feelings and impressions.

I spend a lot of time, when I can, lying in bed waiting for that moment to sort of hit. I'm always working, but really using my sense and my body and my smell to tell me what it needs right now, how it needs to express itself right now. When I allow myself that moment to sort of relax, it's like being in that space of being awake and asleep. You're just in that in-between zone, and in that zone all kinds of things happen. You come up with your stories, right? You come up with the way you're going to approach it, how you're going to write about it. It's not when you're sitting at your desk. It's another kind of work. It's a kind of reflective moment that I think is crucial to the artistic process.

I've never heard that stated better, and I agree 100 percent.

It's so interesting. It's like you can almost taste it at the tip of your tongue. They are ideas with real sensation, real life to them. They get you up in the morning. That's the thing that's really interesting to me, paying attention to the way in which you sort of think about the world and the engagement you have with your process of making that actually gets you up. Because you know if you don't get up, it won't get done. And if it doesn't get done, then you're actually missing out on an extraordinary opportunity of your own self-expression.

I think almost anybody can do that. I don't think you have to wait around to be anointed as an artist or a writer or whatever. People seem to be not in touch with that or afraid of it.

It's fear. I think it is fearful, stating a position. The moment you decide to state a position is the moment you've separated yourself from the group. Most people don't want to be separated from the group. Most people don't want to stand out for what they believe. Most people want to blend in the background. That's why, for the most part, when you're an artist, whether you're a literary artist, a dancer, a composer, why it takes such enormous courage. It means you have to step out. You step out on a limb and you make yourself available for critical scrutiny and you may be torn to shreds by any number of people who decide they can't stand it, that you're wrong, that you're naïve, that you're immature, that your vision is empty and vapid and vacant. Right? You take all those chances the moment you decide you're going to make a statement and put it someplace - on a wall, in a paper or on a stage.

When that criticism comes, you've got be able to handle it.

You've got to handle it or just fold with the punches and go back to working at the post office.

As a photographer, you're in the middle of this technological change over the last 10 years or so. Has that had an impact on the way you work? On even the ideas?

Not so much the ideas, no. Of course, I shoot digital video so I'm able to do that and I'm able do more things with it in an affordable way than I would be in film. Because I wouldn't be able to afford a 35-minute film or six or seven of them, or however many of them I have. It affords me the ability to work in a way that I wouldn't have been able to work before. Which I love.

In terms of digital photography, I continue to print and use film for the most part. I still shoot with film, 21/4 film specifically, and I love it. I love it because I know what it does, how it really responds to light. I like noise. I'm not really interested in things that are like perfectly, smoothly rendered. I'm really interested in the noise of light, that it's been processed in a particular kind of way. I love silver. Silver does something very different than inkjet. I still function in the same way. More and more I use a digital printer to get work done. The thing I don't like about that is that I'm missing the use of my hands and I feel really awkward about it. I feel more like a director than anytime in my history. I'm just telling people what to do, and I don't like it.

I think some of the pieces I'm doing now are in part, my attempt to reintroduce my physicality into the frame. So I have to get up early, I have to work out. I have to run. I have to do all these things. It's my way of saying I'm still in this. I have to make this or it won't get made.

But the printing process has changed, and it's going to change even more as it becomes more and more difficult to find silver printers.

Isn't all of this going to come to an end or become massively unaffordable?

Exactly. If I want do small silver prints, it's fine. But at the moment if I say I want to do something that's 30-by- 40 or 60-by-70, I'm in digital land. That's all there is to it.

One last question. Is there something that people really should know about you, your work?

You mean about how extraordinary I am?

Is there a central thing?

I can't imagine there's one central thing. I just think of myself as a very hardworking girl. That's all I am. I'm just a really hard working woman. And I love it. I care about people. I care about what happens to people. I care about change. I care about democracy. I care about the embrace of the fullest extent of our mutual humanities. That's all I care about. All the work that I do is in one way or another, focused on that one thing. That we can make an enormously positive world with ourselves, with our lives, with our thoughts, with our feelings, if we do the right thing. If we embrace the essence of our humanity that doesn't deny somebody else theirs, we're doing something extraordinary in our lives.

Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KentWolgamott.



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