Keenly observed body language, down-home truths and a fine feel for vernacular poetry of everyday speech give Carrie Mae Weems' photo-and-text pieces a gentle power that deepens and magnifies her "field reports" of black life in the United States.
Weems works within the cleanly unemotional sphere of postmodern image-making, but she brings along a warm, folksy sensibility that, as people used to say in the '60s, tells it like it is. Two of her extended text-and-photo series are at the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery through Nov. 7.
In "Untitled Series, 1990," the main subject is the power play between a woman who "needed a man who didn't mind her bodacious manner, varied talents, hard laughter, multiple opinions" and her lover. A man and woman sit at a plain table in a starkly furnished room, usually with a pack of cigarettes and a couple of drinks. A bright hanging light--the lamp of truth, perhaps--beams down on them. They talk and brood and embrace and ignore each other. Sometimes the man seems to have the upper hand--in one scene, the woman nearly disappears in a shadowy corner of the room while the man reads the newspaper. But mostly we are aware of the woman being aware of the man.
It isn't often--even in our post-feminist era--that we see a relationship from this point of view. The history of art is overwhelmingly a history of images made by men of women who exist only within a lover's gaze. Here, though, we see the woman (Weems) casting a coolly appraising eye on her man while they play cards or reaching out to pat his head and tease him during a romantic dinner.
Weems, who lives in Massachusetts and teaches at Hampshire College in Amherst, is in her late 30s. Her college studies in folklore (she has a master's degree in the subject from UC Berkeley) have flavored her work in wonderful ways, leading her to find truth in ordinary things and to combine snatches and samplings of "found" language that reflect the way people really see the world.
Clumps of running commentary interrupt the flow of images, which tend to be grouped in threes. The romance is described in terms of cliches ("a match made in heaven"), political agendas (the woman believes monogamy is "a system based on private property"), her mother's folk wisdom and unconscious feminism ("I sided with men so long I forgot women had a side"), snatches of blues (" . . . he had a tombstone disposition and a graveyard mind," from Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love") and children's rhymes ("John and Mary sitting in a tree").
The couple eventually have a child, a little girl who sits at the table, copying her mother's way of applying lipstick and tries, unsuccessfully, to concentrate on drawing a house while her mother studies. A series of five photos reveals the restlessness, the disciplining, the pouting and the all-too-motherly feeling of having one's space and time encroached upon.
We see the woman with friends who offer either brooding or vivacious company, according (we guess) to her mood. And we see her alone: dressed up, giving the camera a witty, self-possessed stare; tensely playing solitaire after the romance ends; bending her nude torso backward across the table in a moment that might read either as personal agony or liberation.
The simplicity and universality of these staged photographs let viewers read a variety of meanings into them, while the text floats a more specific scenario and tends to externalize one person's (the woman's) point of view. There remains plenty of room to conjecture about what it means to be a woman--specifically, but not exclusively, a black woman--in the 1990s: how a domestic setting is both confining and nurturing; how human nature doesn't really change, despite well-meaning theories; and how one's best friend often turns out to be oneself.
The title of Weems' other piece, "And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People" refers to the vast numbers of blacks who migrated from the agricultural South to northern cities, beginning in the 1940s, when industries supplying the war effort needed more workers. The factory environment was so hostile that a group of blacks threatened to march on Washington in 1941, prompting President Roosevelt to issue an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in the defense industry. As we know, the struggle would accelerate in succeeding decades.
The color photographs in this piece are each of a single object shot in a seemingly neutral way against a dark background. But the captions underneath the images, and the way the images are grouped in bunches--like stanzas of a poem--convey Weems' broad vision. She is at once heartfelt and ironic, homespun and media-sophisticated. In her universe, a sensual pleasure or a humble piece of work are just as important as a distinguished theory.
One photo group juxtaposes an African sculpture, labeled "a little black magic" (a humorous acknowledgement of the role of ritual in African life); a hammer (resembling a judge's mallet and recalling landmark anti-discrimination statutes); and a sickle (with its double reference to the Communist symbol--recalling the political radicalism of the black power movement--and to agriculture, the primary occupation of blacks in slavery and for many years afterward).
Another grouping consists of a photograph of a vintage alarm clock ("a precise moment in time," reads the caption, referring to the full-blown power of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s) and a manual typewriter ("an information system"). The old-fashioned look of these objects suggests nostalgia for a past era of personal (as opposed to corporate or institutional) effort and achievement.
Among the other images, one is particularly unusual yet apt in this context: a rolling pin labeled "by any means necessary." It is a down-to-earth tribute to the role of black women, who kept their families together with firm discipline and home-cooked food--the physical and psychological warmth of the kitchen and the dinner table.
Banners hanging from the gallery ceiling hold pertinent extended quotations from a familiar roster of Socialist and Marxist theoreticians and political figures (including Malcolm X, Rosa Luxemburg, Friedrich Engels and Herbert Marcuse) and black novelist Richard Wright. But one of the most haunting passages comes from a completely unexpected source, a tribute to Weems' ability to piece together meaning from many sources, and to trust the inflections of the human voice.
"Time will pass and we shall be gone forever," says Olga, a privileged but unfulfilled character in "The Three Sisters," a play by the Russian 19th-Century dramatist Anton Chekhov. "They will forget our faces, voices, and how many of us there were, but our sufferings will turn into joy for those who will be living after us. . . . Our life isn't over yet. A little more and we shall know why we live and why we suffer. . . . If only we knew, if only we knew."