Carrie Mae Weems' solo at Jack Shainman gallery is exactly the show we need this fall. Her unflinchingness, and her explorations of what haunts and what is bound to haunt, ask complicated questions about representation, memory, and how to witness. The works employ similar strategies-- blunt statement, seemingly simple juxtaposition-- to different ends. Some open a valve and flood the viewer with clear and raging grief, some quietly make space for new imaginings by rupturing old, some create a disrupted longing, a blue-toned ache tinged with violence.
The show spans both Chelsea locations, each grouping of work thematically coherent. It was impossible not to read each location as a distinct show, two shows, similarly structured, in conversation with one another across a very small gap. The 20th Street location is concerned with hauntingness and narrative formation; what we repress comes back, what we think we see gets complicated, there is the sense of memory drifting and obscured. 24th Street, by contrast, is a radical act of witness, a showing more than a making, a contemporaneous attempt to be at the present moment in order to make breathing room within it, to honor, to try to make a vessel for the uncontainable.
Weems, one of the most full-frontal statement makers of contemporary art, always manages to escape the trap of collapse into declaration, instead using her bluntness to break open a space for questioning, sometimes even for feeling. Her statements, though made straightforwardly, serve to complicate rather than simplify, to demand rather than declare.
At 20th Street viewers enter into Scenes and Take, a series of photographic works whose sharp focus and flat light make the images seem impenetrable, an unreachable separate world. They're shot on the sets of the TV shows Empire, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, and paired with text that serves to complicate the idea of legible narrative. Weems exploits the expectations of text-image pairing-- the text tells us something about what we're seeing, or the image illustrates the text-- to reveal the absurd impossibility of this simplification of our stories. The witness is the primary actor here, as the black clad observer on the empty set, as the critic, as the imaginer. The figure feels separate from-- identical in all the images--same black gown, same lack of interaction with the viewer, same observational distance to the setting. She is not there to be seen, or to activate a narrative contained by the constructed space, but rather to point to one outside it. She is audience, witness, and actor at once, slightly displacing the viewer to a further remove, into the role of a meta-audience forced by distance into a deeper level of critique.
The character in the text is sometimes imaginable as the visible figure, sometimes not, creating further tension between participant and author, being told and telling. Exactly the correct length for wall text, the stories are sometimes direct references to things that happened on the sets where the images were shot, but often in shifted ways-- the story is the same but the details have been altered. In the [below/above] image, Scenes and Take (Vertigo), the title references one Hitchcock movie, the end of the text is an unmistakable reference to another. The text itself is abstracted, generalized, possible to align directly with the image but always with a bit of slippage. They rupture into storymaking full of half-narratives and oblique reference, querying both the exclusions of the past and the possibilities of the present.
Space is similarly opened in Blue Notes, made by the interference of one form on another. The soft blue images are taken over by blocks of mostly primary colors, often just red. These works offer a kind of visual relief within the show, their reduction of form allowing a faster comprehension of the tensions between what is seen, imagined, remembered, and interfered with. The rectangles are so strict, so sharp, that they seem arbitrary, yet always block our access to the person depicted, create a pattern instead of a connection, performing an act of violence that takes over and defines the image.
The glory of the 20th Street portion is the video, Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me - a Story in 5 Parts, which is a haunting of the first order. Sound's ability to both enter present bodies and reference absent bodies is used perfectly in this work of phantoms. The darkness of the room leads to collisions of unseen bodies, a nice complement to the visible and invisible bodies within the piece.
The image of the film can only be seen from a rather narrow full-frontal view-- the angle from the entryway leaves the center of the curtains, where the phantoms appear, blank. The crisp sharpness of the curtains, and their full saturation, lend even more ephemerality to the figures who dance and move and disappear at their center. This is a piece whose haunting will haunt you. A woman's voice delivers the Gettysburg Address, a poignant and pointed reminder of the history of conflicts and fractures all too obvious now. The manipulation of the texts into echos and choruses-- we say here, we say here, we say here-- anchors us to the grief and repetition of history/ies which haunt the present moment as well as the work. The text portions of this piece are so deft and so clear, supported by the other audio and in perfect balance with the phantoms who come into being and disappear. I'm scared, he's scared, now who's scared; I have seen you for a long time; I generally go into a situation knowing there's no change that will happen; Revenge is a motherfucker.
It's obvious that the brave men living and dead referenced by Lincoln's speech are now those honored in the second portion of the show at 24th Street.
Upon entrance to the 24th Street space, an unsuspecting viewer is sucker punched with a hefty wallop of grief. Sometimes the most direct approach is the most effective, and here the mode of repetition in Usual Suspects and stark juxtapositions of All the Boys are clear witness to current atrocity. Usual Suspects pairs individuals' names and physical details with the same repeated text, forcing the recognition of the systemic nature of the violence referenced. Again. And again. And again. Different humans, different physical bodies, subjected to the same violence. Like the violence it references, the work is overwhelming and relentless. Paired with this work are a series of images and image-text diptychs that give a vessel to grief rather than rage; their soft focused blue conjures a very specific ache. In All the Boys, as in Blue Notes, rectangular blocks interfere with the portraits, though here they are all (appropriately) blood red. The texts are seemingly appropriated official documents.
This is not a haunting but an act of witness, a direct response to present violence, a litany, a witnessprayer that like any ritual tries to make a container for the uncontainable.
Contemporaneous witness is a delicate and difficult task. Perhaps the most ambitious of the works shown is the video All the Boys: Video in Three Parts which uses footage of recent police killings, documentary and documentary-like video, and staged performance. I found it the least successful of the works shown, largely because of the electronic drone in the second and third movements, a poor fit with the voiceover and grace of the performers on the treadmill. The stagespace for the treadmill had the same effect, an odd anesthetizing of the radical act of witnessing and its referencing, which would otherwise be much more moving, as it is in the first movement of the piece. Perhaps it is simply that we want too much from a work like this. Whether or not it fulfills its promise, the attempt to speak of the unspeakable is enough.
Both in her ambitions and her successes, Weems models the kind of artist necessary in the 21st century.