Critics’ Picks

Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled, 1990, gelatin silver print, dimensions variable. From the “Kitchen Table Series,” 1990.


Carrie Mae Weems

Portland Art Museum
1219 SW Park Avenue
February 2 - May 19

The likeness of Portland, Oregon native Carrie Mae Weems is often at the center of her work. This spectacular retrospective, aptly taking place in her hometown, reveals the diverse ways in which Weems combines photography’s documentary, portrait, and pictorial traditions in dramatic multi-image serial narratives exploring history, family, community, and place. For instance, in the “Kitchen Table Series,” 1990, Weems casts herself as a woman who begins and ends a romantic relationship, then weathers its dissolution in the company of friends and family, and, in the last few images of the twenty-part work, “finds” herself through the empowerment of self-representation. In the most powerful of these images, we see Weems adorned in a plain black shirt standing at the head of the table, palms flat on the table and elbows extended in a gesture of resolve, staring straight-on into the camera confronting the gaze of the viewer. Weems describes the “Kitchen Table Series” as the locus of her transformation into a performer. However, Weems’s representational agenda expands far beyond self-identity: “I use myself simply as a vehicle for approaching the question of power. It’s never about me; it’s always about something larger.”

Weems’s broader, humanistic concerns are also exemplified by her use of image, audio, text, and, occasionally, moving image, to create what seems like a reparative and holistic vision of overlooked people and their histories. Her subjects include: families of color (Family Pictures and Stories, 1978–84); black women artists (Slow Fade to Black, 2010); and political activism (May Days Long Forgotten, 2002). In Slow Fade to Black, Weems enlarges and blurs historic publicity photographs of black women singers, hanging them, like much of her work, in staggered grids and rows that transform the walls of the museum into a new territory of the artist’s making.