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Bearing witness: Carrie Mae Weems’ Untitled.

Deep in a Dream
By David Brickman

Carrie Mae Weems: The Louisiana Project
The Hyde Collection through April 10

In 1803, France’s Emperor Na poleon I found himself in a financial bind, due in part to a brewing revolution in Haiti. He solved this problem by selling 825,000 square miles of the Louisiana Territories to the United States for $27 million, completing what is arguably history’s most significant real-estate deal, and giving U.S. President Thomas Jefferson one more feather in his cap.

To commemorate the 2003 bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the Newcomb Art Gallery of Tulane University in New Orleans commissioned photographer Carrie Mae Weems to create an installation called The Louisiana Project, which is now at the Hyde Collection on the third stop of a national tour that will extend through 2006. (The exhibition’s stay at the Hyde Collection is sponsored by Metroland.)

Born in Portland, Ore., Weems had distinguished herself as a thoughtful artist and skilled photographer whose extensive studies in folklore during the ’80s informed her efforts at engaging politically charged subject matter, particularly in the tricky realm of race and gender. Her installation at the Hyde should easily convince skeptics that her many accolades and awards are well earned.

Consisting of about 35 framed photographs and about 15 inkjets on canvas, along with a video projection with soundtrack (audible throughout the gallery), The Louisiana Project is an installation in the true sense, in that it works as a whole to provide the viewer with an integrated experience. At the artist’s insistence, there are no wall labels; rather, very carefully selected bits of text are placed here and there, mostly on the walls but also within two of the pictures. For viewers’ convenience, a spiral-bound gallery guide provides individual titles but one can easily appreciate the work without them.

It is critical, however, to read the wall text, especially the introduction that a friendly volunteer will direct you toward as you enter, so as to better understand what the project is about. I did this, and then I followed the natural clockwise progression of the space past oval-framed portraits of busts of Napoleon and Jefferson to a series of 20-inch-square photographs. Hung in pairs, a triptych and a quadruptych, this body of work offers views in sensual gray tones of present-day Louisiana, ranging from fabulous old plantation houses to bleak housing projects, industrial zones and rural railroad tracks.

Throughout these pictures, the ghostly figure of a middle-aged, barefoot black woman in a flower-print dress is seen, often from behind, as she walks, twirls, sits or stands, mutely viewing the scene. The figure is portrayed by Weems, but she is not only Weems herself—she is “the witness,” a character created by the artist to inhabit these images and draw us into them with her. In doing this simple bit of magic, Weems places us all in the role of witness, and neatly accomplishes her stated goal to “describe simply and directly those aspects of American culture in need of deeper illumination.”

The significantly larger inkjet images on canvas follow, introduced as a “shadow play” with the following text:

A woman illuminates the darkness; via the passage of time she leads us along the shores of the Mississippi, down the shadowy corridors and into the theater of history. It is here, in this dark place, that desire is found lazy and wanting. We were happy to be the playmates to the patriarch: men of power and wealth; after all, we were women.

The images depict in silhouette the figures of two women and a man, in period costume, as spied from beyond a crisscrossing trellis. We understand, again, that we are mute witnesses to the passion play taking place in the cool blue color of dark memory.

Coming upon the video in the back of the gallery, with a warning to parents that it may not be appropriate for children (it’s suggestive, not explicit), we see that the images on canvas have been taken directly from it, or from other footage much like it. What’s different are the motion and the sound—a voice (Weems’, I’ll guess) reads a poem; this is followed by a haunting piano solo that enhances the dreamlike sensation that the film’s actions evoke. As with all the work here, it impresses with its subtlety.

Comparisons to Kara Walker’s silhouette cutouts of oversexualized antebellum Southerners are unavoidable here, but Weems has a style all her own, and it lacks the intensity and contradictions of Walker’s work. Rather than shock and sensationalize, Weems creates a space in which we can experience the material, react personally and draw our own conclusions—we don’t feel we’re being hit over the head.

The last section of the show returns to straight photography, this time with two series of images. The first depicts individuals from the past or present, each paired with Weems as the witness, who holds a hand mirror up to their gaze. They are surrounded by vast darkness, as in a theater or, again, a recaptured memory or dream; the images are imbued with a pathos and a mysteriousness. This group is flanked by identical (but mirrored) images of Weems in a different costume, as she seeks her own image in the handheld mirror. Their title, I Looked and Looked and Failed to See What So Terrified You, contrasts with the tender expression and gestures of the elegant woman standing in a beautiful hand-pieced dress.

The second group of pictures is the least resolved in the show. Here, animal-masked figures from a legendarily offensive 1873 parade are recaptured in soft-focus studio portraits that seem to take more from their theatricality than their humanity. I much preferred the first series, with its unblinking, yet softened look at the world outside the theater.

Taken as a whole, The Louisiana Project forms an impression that is likely to vary from viewer to viewer. This is a good thing. Weems, past 50, is at the top of her game—she has the confidence to immerse herself in the forms of her art and then let us do the same without too much additional mediation or preaching. The result is that her subjects, and we, are indeed illuminated.

Vision and Performance: A Musical Response to the Louisiana Project will be presented at the Hyde Collection in association with the Lake George Opera at 6 PM on Saturday, March 19. The performance will feature soprano Rebecca Cummings accompanied by pianist Michael Clement. Tickets are $5 for members, $7 for nonmembers.


Joe Putrock

The Gates: Central Park, New York, 1979-2005

Central Park, New York City

If you missed The Gates, don’t blame it on the media. The second-most hyped artistic creation of the new millennium (after The Aviator) has been unavoidable in newspapers, magazines and electronic media for the last month or two—and for pretty good reason, considering that it is the largest work of art since the Sphinx. But pictures and reports are one thing—to actually experience some or all of the 7,500 stanchions covering 23 miles of Central Park’s walking paths, you had to go to New York.

So, last Saturday, some friends and I bombed down the Thruway for a visit. Once there, luck was with us—there was enough sun to glitter along the ripstop fabric of The Gates’ curtains and a good breeze to make them flutter and fly. The light, color, movement, scale—all these elements combined to bring the installation to life in a way that no documentation could hope to capture.

Moving among the orange uprights (the only thing I’ve ever seen that’s “saffron-colored” is—you got it—saffron), reaching up to touch the swaying fabric and looking around at all the smiling faces doing the same was an experience worth 10 times the trip. Artistically, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have triumphed. The Gates were, like a perfect science experiment, sublime. They efficiently divided the world into static and active elements; they imbued the viewer with an overwhelming sense of feeling both sheltered and warmed while actually providing neither in the chilly environment of the park in February; and they brought hundreds of thousands of people together to share an undeniable sense of exhilaration.

One was instantly caught up in the excitement of The Gates upon arriving at the park. There was palpable joy among the snapshooting throng as we staggered like giddy toddlers in all directions. The gates were everywhere, and everywhere they looked like they belonged. When my group wandered into an area suddenly devoid of gates, I felt disoriented. When, as night fell, we left the park in search of dinner, I was bereft. It was love—and now it’s over. You shoulda been there.

—David Brickman

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