Is it significant that the opening sentence of Pippy Houldsworth Gallery’s press release labels this a ‘carefully curated selection’ of Carrie Mae Weems’s work of the past 30 years rather than as an exhibition? I hope so. For what’s on show is more like a sampler than the pointed, focused (more-or-less), coherent whole we expect from a contemporary art exhibition involving a single artist. As much as this show introduces Weems’s work to a new audience (the press release, having downplayed things in its opening line, can’t resist a return to foregrounding significance in the next, in which it points out that this is the American artist’s first solo show in the UK), it also serves to reduce the physical presence of the objects on display to a series of prompts for further reading (which can be acted upon via the literature in the gallery’s viewing room, offered as an appendix to the main show, where a number of the artist’s films are also available). All in all, what’s on show – one new print, from which the exhibition takes its title, a 2006 photograph from the artist’s Roaming series, five photographs from her groundbreaking Kitchen Table Series of 1990, a Colored People grid from the late 2000s, two related works from the late 1990s and, in the corridor, the triptych Slave Coast: Grabbing Snatching Blink and You Be Gone (1993) – feels like someone (and it’s not clear whether that someone is the gallery or the viewer) is dipping a toe into the water rather than taking the plunge.
But perhaps all that is to dwell on a ‘problem’ where there shouldn’t be one. Other than the fact that these days we’re conditioned – in part by what’s going on in, say, many of the big West End galleries that surround Pippy Houldsworth – to expect commercial gallery shows to perform what was traditionally the function of a major museum presentation (which in Weems’s case was carried out by the Guggenheim in New York earlier this year). That is, to present major bodies of work, or work that is on show above all else to enhance the feeling of its significance (press releases that shriek about the work’s novelty, bravery or, most empty of the lot, ‘importance’) without the matter of its availability for purchase coming particularly to the fore.
So where does all that leave this exhibition? Ironically, given those nods to further reading, the photographs on show – from Color: Real and Imagined (2014, an archival pigment-print portrait onto which a grid of rectangular blocks of red, yellow, green and blue has been printed), to Magenta Colored Girl (1997, an image of a young black girl tinted magenta) – suggest that they, rather than any text alone, are formidable tools by which to analyse the power and control exercised by language and the extent to which aesthetics (or aesthetic projection) can act as a dominating and distorting force when it comes to issues of politics, gender, race, class and the social construction of identity. It seems odd that Weems’s work hasn’t been more exposed in the UK. The main feeling you walk out of here with is one of wanting to see much, much more. And for that, it’s hard to know whether I love this show or hate it.
This article was first published in January & February 2015 issue.