February 2009, Carrie Mae Weems @ Gallery Paule Anglim


Carrie Mae Weems, Mourning, 2008, Archival Pigment Print, sheet: 60” x 50”, image: 40” x 40”,
courtesy Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco 

Constructing History

Carrie Mae Weems’ exhibition Constructing History: Requiem for the Moment at Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco interrogates the significance of the term “history” and questions how it is constructed and related through words and images.  

Constructing History is comprised of two components: an exhibition of three small and eight large-scale photographs—scene stills, and a related film presented in an adjoining darkened room. The photographs are self-reflexive vignettes that reference the assassinations of and mourning for Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and others, and they allude to and lay bare the elements that constitute the film, which was staged and shot in a studio/classroom at The Savannah College of Art and Design in the Fall of 2007.  

Weems’ photographs and film function at a complex juncture of art and technology, centered in artists’ ability to traverse the precarious ground between the positive technical and formal advances resulting from advanced capitalist modes of production, the alienating nature of capitalist exploitation itself, and an auto-critique of art in society and ideologies associated with a historically exclusionary structuring of the arts. 

Carrie Mae Weems, A Class Ponders the Future, 2008, Archival Pigment Print,
sheet: 60” x 50”, image: 40” x 40”, courtesy Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco
Constructing History is anchored, after all, in the role of photography in the dissemination, inundation, and popularization of a range of images that are easily identifiable by audiences who are steeped in modern visual vocabularies, in an age of post-technological reproduction. In fact, it is by means of photographic reproductions that most people know the images/events (re)presented in the exhibition, and have knowledge of the history of art, since it is through the daily bombardment of photographic images that much of the public’s familiarity, understanding, and experience of contemporary culture is situated.  

Yet images do not function neutrally, and this issue forms a core concern of Constructing History, and it conditions the task the work sets for itself—the de-mystification of the idea that photographs capture an unmediated reality, a notion that is part and parcel of an ideological orientation that has privileged aesthetic self-sufficiency and that has projected as “universal” certain Western cultural traditions. 

At issue in the photographs and film is the contesting and undermining of the idea that photography speaks an unmediated "universal language" or truth, one capable of transcending cultural differences; and thus the work addresses and problematizes the use of photographs and mass media images as instruments of ideology that function through artistic, technical, and ideological manipulation. 
Carrie Mae Weems, The Assassination of Medger, Malcom, and Martin, 2008, Archival Pigment Print,
sheet: 60” x 50”, image: 40” x 40, courtesy Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco
In Mourning (2008) for example, the actors—two seated women and a child at the feet of one of the women—are posed in costumes, and shown among studio lights, cameras, and tracking, all of which is orchestrated to produce a scene for aesthetic contemplation that, in its self-reflexive (re)presentation, reveals that photographs in general, of any genre or photo-based image, are also constructed, and are just as structured as the image presented.  
In Constructing History the use of photographic images, text (over voice narration), and documentary film footage not only serve to comment on the fact that photographs are specific legible "texts" within a history of photographic conventions that people have long assumed are “objective” or value-free, but additionally these photographs function to critique the "language" of photography as a means of interrogation through the historical re-enactment of the “events” presented, as part of a “constructed” collective cultural memory. 

In this context, Class Ponders the Future (2007) may serve to reference how educational institutions and practices serve to acculturate and condition people through forms of knowledge, cultural conventions, and art historical canons, while commenting on how art images function within visual language systems that shape our perceptions of race, gender, and class, while conversely revealing how art can be appropriated to educate and serve, in a counter-hegemonic struggle, to deconstruct, decode, and critique cultural legacies and the societies from which they spring. 

Carrie Mae Weems, Veiled Women, 2008, Archival Pigment Print, sheet: 60” x 50”, image: 40” x 40”
courtesy Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco
In this light, Constructing History: Requiem for the Moment can be said to function in opposition to "official" histories that have created distorted records that have written certain people and stories out of existence. By constructing and positing an alternate historical narrative aimed at subverting dominant ideological photographic conventions through a re-telling of American history via the use and subterfuge of the history of photography, Constructing History insists that we re-envision images perpetuated through the popular media, in order to implicate and compel viewers to examine “common sense” modes of representation and their own cultural biases. 

Anthony Torres

Anthony Torres is an independent scholar, art writer, and art appraiser. He has curated and traveled numerous exhibitions, and published extensively in Artweek, New Art Examiner, Art Papers and others. Additionally he researched and wrote the “Illustrated Chronology” and essay “Negotiating Space: The Sketch Books,” for the book, Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning (2003).   

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