Carrie Mae Weems: Portland Art Museum

kitchen-table15Some moments come on big and important from the get-go.  The assassination of John F. Kennedy; the September morning when the World Trade Center towers crumbled; the night we elected our first African American president. If I accomplish nothing terribly remarkable in my life – and the odds are rapidly tipping in that favor —  I can take comfort in the fact that I have, by sheer dumb luck of timing, been witness to remarkable times.

Then there are the countless other days, the quiet dates historians will never deem important enough to record but have intrinsic value because their ordinariness too has been witnessed.

The retrospective of photographer Carrie Mae Weems at the Portland Art Museum reminds me to stop and feel both those momentous and mundane moments.  I was especially drawn to her images of home life. Maybe it’s an occupational bias of a home writer. One photo shows two women standing in a kitchen calmly carrying on a conversation while between them several young children are apparently having a blast. A boy seems to be wearing a scarf like the cape of an unstoppable super hero. He’s slightly blurry. It’s hard to pin down Superman. Weems created that series of family portraits between 1978-84 in part to contrast an earlier report by the Assistant Secretary of Labor that blamed the “deterioration of the fabric of the Negro society” on families. The families in Weems’ images aren’t perfect —  the recorded stories that accompany the images are sometimes sad, sometimes funny and always ring true —  but they personalize more complex issues. They make it harder to reduce real lives to mere statistics.

Weems moved to New York City decades ago but spent her early years in Portland. In a recent interview with The Skanner she talks of those days.

Another series in the retrospective focuses on a wooden kitchen table and all that happens around it. There’s a man and woman sharing drinks, the couple having a meal, friends playing cards, the woman alone with a bottle, the woman talking with a friend or sister, the woman and her young daughter putting on makeup, and then doing schoolwork – both of them — around the same kitchen table. It’s a sweet look at life unfolding. Pull up a chair.

Portland Art Museum; 1219 SW Park Avenue, Portland, OR

Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video

February 2 to May 19, 2013