IN A NEW ONLINE VIEWING ROOM, Jack Shainman Gallery is showcasing Carrie Mae Weems‘s iconic Kitchen Table Series (1990). The photographs feature succession of staged scenes that explore female identity, experiences, and relationships in the context of a traditionally female domain.

Employing visual performance, image making, and a compelling narrative text, the powerful series provides a lens through which to view a woman’s life. Not the artist’s life, but that of the female subject.

 


CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Untitled (Woman standing alone), 1990 (gelatin silver print, 28 1/4 x 28 1/4 inches (framed)). | © Carrie Mae Weems, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

Weems casts herself in the images, serving as an archetype in a gendered space that is both sanctuary and battleground—for moments of solitude and internal dialogue as well as gathering, participation, and shared experience around family dynamics, friendship, and the war between the sexes.

There are 20 images and 14 text panels in the series. Weems produced the body of work in 1990 at home, at her kitchen table, with a single light source—a hanging pendant lamp. At the time, she was teaching photography at Hampshire College in Amherst, a small college town in Massachusetts. She worked at odd hours, late at night and early in the morning, whenever she could claim time for her own practice. She was 38.

“I had been really thinking a lot about what it meant to, what it meant to sort of develop your own voice and so I made this body of work, the Kitchen Table Series,” Weems told Art21. “It started in a curious way as a kind of response to my own sort of sense of what needed to happen, what needed to be, and what would not be simply a voice for African American women but what would be a voice more generally for women.”

“I had been really thinking a lot about what it meant to, what it meant to sort of develop your own voice… It started in a curious way as a kind of response to my own sort of sense of what needed to happen, what needed to be, and what would not be simply a voice for African American women but what would be a voice more generally for women.” — Carrie Mae Weems


CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Untitled (Playing cards / Malcolm X),” 1990-1989 (gelatin silver print, 28 1/4 x 28 1/4 inches). | © Carrie Mae Weems, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

THE PHOTOGRAPHS SPEAK VOLUMES on their own. Adding the text gives dimension and specificity, a call-and-response with the visual narrative. At one point in the first half of the series, accompanying images of Weems with a male counterpart, the text reads:

    She insisted that what he called domineering was a jacket being forced on her because he couldn’t stand the thought of the inevitable shift in the balance of power. She assured him that the object of her task was not to control him, but out of necessity—freedom being the appreciation of necessity—to control herself. She went on to tell him that in the face of the daily force she understood his misgivings. But they were in a 50-50 thing. Equals. She wasn’t about to succumb to standards of tradition which denied her a rightful place or voice, period. She was trying to be a good woman, a compadre, a pal, a living doll—and she was working. How could he ask for more!! She was really gettin tired of him talkin out of both sides of his mouth about the kinda woman he wanted. Fish or cut bait.

In 2016, Weems spoke to T: The New York Times Style Magazine about the series upon the publication of a book dedicated to the body of work. The artist said she had already completed the photographic project when she decided to introduce the text. Hillary Moss reported how the two elements came together:

    The corresponding story, a cross between a bildungsroman and a beat poem, came to her, unplanned, about a month after she’d finished shooting. She had been talking to a friend, then embarked on a long drive and recited the words to herself in one sitting. “You circle around the idea, move around the idea and it doesn’t come home—and suddenly things start to click,” she says. “It seems to me that the most important thing an artist can do is to get out of the way of the work. The work tells you what it needs, where it needs to go; even if you don’t understand why, you should follow it. So to this extent, at a certain moment, the text seemed to come together effortlessly.” And so, “Kitchen Table” became an image-and-text piece. “I don’t necessarily need the text with the photographs,” Weems says, “and I don’t necessarily need the photographs with the text, but nonetheless together they create an interesting dynamic and interplay.

Examining the performative aspects of Weems’s practice, Franklin Sirmans considered the significance of the text elements of the series in the exhibition catalog “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video.”

He wrote: “With its concise, poetic writing that recalls the vernacular and oral narration in the language of Zora Neale Hurston, the tragic narrative of blues music, and the cadence of jazz vocals, Weems’s Kitchen Table Series is now a hallmark of the era a defining piece of the late 1980s and early 1990s history of contemporary art.”

AT JACK SHAINMAN, the online exhibition presents a multimedia overview of the Kitchen Table Series. It’s a veritable digest. Photographs and text panels from the series are featured along with quotes from interviews with Weems and articles about the work. The passages frame the series and highlight critical reactions, the artist’s intentions, and her influence on a younger artist (Xaviera Simmons). A video of Weems speaking about the series in 2018 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., is included. Installation views of the series on display at the Art Institute of Chicago and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum are showcased.

The gallery notes that the entire Kitchen Table Series is in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art (acquired in 2008) and Detroit Institute of Art (acquired in 2017), and individual works are owned by at least eight more museums. The viewing room also offers a selection of photographs from the Kitchen Table Series for sale.

The project is the subject of a dedicated volume “Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series,” (the book Moss was writing about for the Times), where the body of work is published in its entirety for the first time, alongside essays by curators Sarah Lewis and Adrienne Edwards.

“How are women going to image themselves? This was Weems’s guiding question during the earliest moments of conceiving the Kitchen Table Series as she reflected on the corpus of photographic images of women up to the 1980s and what wasn’t there. We have images of women in states of arresting beauty—a force of a certain kind; women in states of maternal focus—another form of authority. Yet there are few images that depict the journey towards an inner sanctum,” Lewis writes in the foreword.

“The Kitchen Table Series remains one of the few narrative works in the history of photography to cast a black female protagonist in a journey towards utter empowerment.” CT

 

“Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series” is on view online at Jack Shainman Gallery

 

WATCH MORE about the Kitchen Table Series, from Carrie Mae Weems in a short video for Art21.

 


CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Untitled,” 1990-2018 (50 x 50 inched (image) 69 1/2 x 60 inches
(print)). | © Carrie Mae Weems, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 


CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Untitled (Woman with friends),” 1990 (gelatin silver print, triptych: 27 1/4 x 27 1/4 inches (each print)). | © Carrie Mae Weems, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 


CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Make Up),” 1990 (gelatin silver print, 27 1/4 x 27 1/4 inches (print); 28 3/8 x 28 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches (framed)). | © Carrie Mae Weems, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 


CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Untitled (Woman feeding bird),” 1990 (silver print, 28 1/4 x 28 1/4
inches (print); 28 7/8 x 28 7/8 x 1 1/2 inches (framed)). | © Carrie Mae Weems, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

 

BOOKSHELF
“Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series” is a special volume dedicated to Carrie Mae Weems’s celebrated body of work made in 1990. The book features for the first time all 20 photographs and 14 text panels from Kitchen Table Series, one of the artist’s earliest series, and includes essay contributions by Sarah Lewis and Adrienne Edwards. “Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video” coincided with Weems’s traveling retrospective which concluded at the Guggenheim in 2014. Franklin Sirmans and Deborah Willis are among the contributors to the exhibition catalogue and each offers thoughts about the arc of Weems’s practice, including the Kitchen Table Series.

 

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