Sailing to Byzantium: On West Versus East

So, reader, yesterday I talked about the spatial arrangements of the northeastern and western United States. Today’s post is a continuation, and I want to talk about the growing power of the western United States vis-à-vis the northeast in recent decades.

archangel michaelSo, to begin. A number of years ago, I went to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the art of Byzantium (Constantinople)—and it was beautiful, large, and stuffed with art. Icons, primarily, and artifacts of daily life.

It was also, of course, a nicely curated exhibit with plenty of informational items on the relationship of Rome and Byzantium. (Unfortunately, no record of this exhibit survives online, so I can only give a thumbnail sketch of what I remember.) Briefly: Rome had a host of problems; Constantine became emperor; he converted to Christianity; he established the seat of empire in Byzantium/Constantinople. That city, once the eastern-most satellite of the Roman Empire, eventually took over Rome’s place as the largest and most powerful capital.

Essentially, the exhibit was arguing that Constantinople was the art capital, the cultural capital, and the political capital as Rome became far less powerful. I also remember thinking that the exhibit was trying to remove the art of Byzantium from the effects of the word “Byzantine,” which is pejorative. It means subterranean, or unduly, treacherously complicated. Not trustworthy. It was seeking a place for Constantinople as a strong capital of empire.

As I recall, Constantinople was presented as a lovely place, full of beauty and ease. The overall idea was that, rather than being “Byzantine,” with everything that connotes about up-to-no-good complexity, it was the best place to be in the Roman Empire of the period, whereas Rome was, well, fallen upon hard times. “Byzantine” was a political attack by Rome upon Byzantium, not a full representation of the place.

(I might add that, in searching for the exhibit I saw and not being able to find it, I did come across a record of a talk at the Smithsonian’s web site that has something of the same points. I quote: “The Byzantine Empire shone with intellectual and artistic brilliance at a time when Western Europe was deep in the Dark Ages and flourished long after the first stirrings of the Renaissance. When the Roman Empire was divided between east and west, Emperor Constantine chose Byzantium as the new eastern capital and renamed it Constantinople in 330 A.D. The empire was one of the longest that has ever existed, and its arts continued to influence other cultures long after it came to an end.”)

Here’s what I thought, walking out. California is Constantinople. New York is Rome. transamerican new vs oldPowerful, and putting an imprimatur on things. But suffering such constriction that it will never again be able to genuinely lead. What I have been witnessing in my own life is a turning from one major capital to another. And the other was once thought lesser, but now has far more resources.

Next: more on the western states as emergent capitals.


Patti Smith’s New York

One of the things that really interests me in life is U.S. regionalism. So today, reader, I’m going to talk about that.

The first part of this blog is about the New York of the late 1960s and 1970s, as viewed through the prism of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. I have to say that, when I was a young woman, I never particularly liked Patti Smith.  (Well, I do like “Because the Night.” But not so much her oeuvre in general.) She seemed like a poseur of major proportions, and, frankly, not particularly musical.

So it was that I had never read Just Kids, about her time as friend, lover, and muse to the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1960s and 1970s. Just Kids has been lauded, certainly—it won a National Book award—but I stayed far away.

Until recently. I grabbed it from my local library’s shelves and have read it with some degree of absorption. I ended up with a lot more respect for Patti Smith, who becomes a person of substance as she goes through her life.just kids book jacket

I want to talk about, though, what hit me most forcefully about her recounting of that period, and that was, how crappy New York was to live in during the 1970s. A lot of Just Kids is Patti Smith recounting how poor she and Robert Mapplethorpe were. Literally, not a lot of money—rationing themselves to a shared hot dog. Partly, this is because they were starving artists. But partly, it is because New York took a lot of money to live even in at the time, and they didn’t have it.

I was particularly struck by one anecdote, on their first apartment in Brooklyn. (Which was, at the time, considered cheap compared to Manhattan. It still is, but no longer the place where people restricted to sharing one hot dog can even think about living.) Their first apartment had been used by junkies, and it had used syringes nearly filling the oven and blood on the walls.

This turned my stomach—there’s something about the warmth and comfort of a kitchen being turned inside out this way that’s quite chilling. (I might also add that I just watched the movie CBGB recently, in honor of Alan Rickman, who plays the owner. The time period of CBGB occurs at the tail end of the Just Kids, of course, but the same “incredible and upsetting filth” motif runs through it: huge roaches, overflowing toilets, and so on and on.)

But the anecdote also caused me to start to meditate on New York and the West Coast, because a lot of my own life in New York City at a later period was being shocked that it was so different from the western states I’d come from.

I was completely fascinated by these differences, which manifested in every conceivable way. For one thing, I had grown up on the West Coast and had never really seen a lot of stuff that was really old. And dirty. Which a lot of the apartments I looked at in searching for rentals were. Not as bad as Smith and Mapplethorpe’s rentals, but still.

But also, I was fascinated with the different ways of using space. In both Oregon and California, for example, you found stuff in a grocery store by finding a long horizontal display. Corn flakes, for example, would be in a row left to right.

In New York City grocery stores, by contrast, corn flakes took up the space of one corn flakes box, and the multiple boxes lined up behind it. To a West Coast kid, it was genuinely difficult to see what you were looking for, because your eye was so oriented toward looking for a display that was an expanse.

So that has remained an orienting idea of NY/West Coast; the first is restricted and vaguely crummy in its space (unless you are quite rich); the second is expansive. This idea is one of the reasons I became very comfortable in suburbia. Expansion—spread out houses, spread out parking lots, spread out vehicles—is the animating spatial idea of suburbia, just as it is the animating idea of the West.

That people were expected to put up with so little space, and such crummy space, seemed very bad to me. It seemed bad for art, actually, which is partly about outreach and not constriction. Which is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated with Smith’s narrative, because she accepts the crappiness and the overall idea that artists starve for art completely.

So tomorrow, readers, I’m going to talk about space restriction and space expansion as two separate kingdoms in the US, and further, where we are in these two kingdoms!


What’s Represented in Representation?

Today, I want to talk about how different representations can change what we see and how we interpret it.

Why do I want to talk about this? Well, as part of my work, I have been looking a lot at offerings in and around the California Institute of the Arts, an art school in southern California. Poking around their web site, I saw iterations of their logo that I’d never seen before, and they seem worthy of comment.

California Institute of the Arts is often referred to as CalArts.calarts-logo-square-orange It was started as a kind of “Caltech of the arts” by, among other people, Walt Disney. Therefore, it makes sense to think of the logo as the equivalent of that, CalArts, running together the abbreviation for the state and the abbreviation of its main offerings, just as California Institute of Technology does in its shortened name, Caltech.

Except that, poking around, I saw another logo that is often used. It’s right below, here. cal arts black on white

This logo is so different than the one above. It doesn’t seem to be making the case that it’s abbreviating California Institute of the Arts. It seems to be, um, saying Ca, La and then a bunch of letters. It seems to be emphasizing the primacy of Los Angeles (assuming that’s the la) in California, and the mutually reinforcing nature of the two. (CalArts is about 30 miles outside of Los Angeles proper. Interestingly, though, one of the foundational schools that eventually became CalArts was the Chouinard Art Institute, which taught the early animators of Walt Disney studios. CalArts was in part started so that animators, and the rest of the industry, would have a state-of-the-art art school on the West Coast.)

So, since it is well known that the Disney animators like to make visual puns in the Disney films, I couldn’t help but wonder if this were one. If we read the ca and la as mutually referential and reinforcing, the rest of it is “rts”—which could be pronounced “arts.” At a minimum, it seems to be making the point that CalArts is in L.A., not San Francisco (the other California center for the arts) or New York. Is it a response to the fact that Disney was dissed in New York, and his films not considered real art? (This according to the recent PBS documentary on Disney, which is fascinating.) Or, is it just making sure that LARTS is the most dominant part of the logo, with “ca” the smaller brother? Is “ca” a smaller reference to Chouinard Art, even?

I think this is an intriguing example of how letters and their arrangement can work as caltech white on blackart. In the Caltech logo, the “ca” is not set off as much—it reads as Caltech, just the way it is said. And, in other representations of CalArts, as in the orange logo above, it looks that way too. But in the black and white CalArts logo above (or should we call it calarts), the “ca” seems to inhabit a different universe from the rest of the letters.

I think this is some artist, somewhere, making the point that representation, not the letters, the building blocks of words only, matters.

I’d love to know the history of the logo, so if anyone knows, please contact me!

More on Amy Schumer and Twelve Angry Men

In my last post, I discussed the Inside Amy Schumer parody of Twelve Angry Men. I want to say more about both today, because the more I think about it, the richer I think it is.

As I mentioned last time, I think part of the richness of the parody is how much it picks up on metaphors of citizenship and physicality that are already present the original film, just not so explicit. The jurors are representative men, and as such their physical imperfections represent them as average citizens. They get to do the things average citizens get to do. Speak. Vote. And voting’s less explicit daily analog, weigh in on an issue.

However, perceived physical imperfections in women often mark them as less than, and result in their being ignored and simply unrepresented. They cannot speak, or are unheard if they do. Amy plain jane amy sSchumer often mines exactly this vein, as exemplified in the Miami Vice parody “Plain Jane,” where the eponymous character (see picture) states, in voice-over, that she is “invisible to the perfect” and, in fact, other characters sit on her because they literally don’t see her on a bar stool. One picture is worth a thousand words; see this great clip here.

Well, um. I think the richness of the parody, though, is exactly how much it works within the ambiance of the original film, which is two-fold. Yes, looks are democratized; no one has to be handsome or hot to weigh in. But something else happens in the film about looks as well. Looks are also made a symbol of the inner man. And it is precisely the reliance on image as marker of inner worth that has particularly hit women hard—they are the carriers of it.

What do I mean about looks being made a symbol? I alluded to it briefly in the first post. Most of the characters look slightly odd in some way; only Henry Fonda has a classic symmetrical look—and his impressive looks mark him as morally better, and as the leader.

Outer looks as a symbol for the inner man is quite intentional in the film. I watched the Criterion 12 angry men jammed togetherCollection of Twelve Angry Men and, for anyone interested in film art, there is a highly informative second DVD included that includes interviews with (among other people) cinematographer John Bailey. Several interviewees mention the cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who director Sidney Lumet worked with to create a slightly eerie claustrophobic effect. Indeed, the pictures smash the people together to create a kind of “society and conformity oppress us” feel. (And, as a dance fan, I have to say that one memorable scene, below, where all the jurors distance themselves physically from a hold-out who wants a guilty verdict, and their moral disapproval is shown by distance and silence, looks highly influenced by the physical presentation of ballet.)12 angry men ballet

So, although there are plenty of words in Twelve Angry Men, film art has meant that meanings are often carried through images rather than words. The status of movies as a central art of the twentieth century has meant that images are more and more important to us. Nineteenth-century books are often a word torrent (390 pages is nothing!) with a single graphic in the frontispiece. In twenty-first century Web pages, on the other hand, images are often both frequent and gargantuan. Moreover, on news sites especially, the picture is often shorthand for the entire thing, rather than the headline. One’s looks, also, have increasingly become a short-hand symbol for the entire person. This is true for both women and men, but Schumer tackles the grittier issue facing women, of being invisible depending on how one looks, or being mediated only by your physicality, with no representative place in the world if you don’t have a physicality deemed acceptable. And this is partly a gender problem, but also part of a cultural turn toward image rather than words.

Third Eye Blind

Happy April, readers!

The other day, I read a review of a show by the artist Laurie Simmons, and have been thinking so much about it that I just have to comment on the images and the phenomenon it represents. So I’ll jump right in!

The show is titled “How We See” (and its Web link is here ). It is a set of photographs of “doll girls”—young women who make themselves up to look like favorite dolls (Barbie, for one) and anime characters. I’m also going to jump right in to what I found most arresting about this exhibit—many of the doll girls have large eyes (somewhat like Barbie), or—as examples in real life—the actresses Cameron Diaz and Amanda Seyfried), as illustrated by the picture from the exhibit here.

But, get this—the eyes are painted on their closed eyelids. !Doll girl, Simmons

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what this means in terms of, well, metaphor. (And frankly, one of the reasons my mind keeps returning to it is that, although the eyes don’t look fully real, I simply couldn’t believe, initially, that they were painted on the eyelids—I couldn’t, ahem, see the eyelids in this photograph—meaning, I couldn’t believe they were eyelids, although I could clearly see they weren’t real eyes.) It becomes clear that they are eyelids upon repeated viewing only.

We are very used to hearing that women distort themselves to conform to a beautiful image. To some degree, the doll girls phenomenon is simply an extreme of this; they are imitating above all the kind of symmetrical large-eyed beauty that is regularly reported to be the most idealized form of beauty.

But what does it mean to adopt a beautifying ritual designed to be photographed—to be seen in other than real time—with a method that ensures that you can’t see. With all that means—you can’t take in or comment on the world; your vision (literal and metaphorically) is blocked. It is, indeed, rendered impossible, since you could never see with your lids closed. Doesn’t that make vision unimportant? A vanishing consideration next to image.

Any thoughts, readers?

Let Us Now Consider Walker Evans, Part II

A few days ago, I wrote on American Photographs, an exhibit of the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans, and my surprise at seeing how different these often-reproduced pictures looked in a museum setting. Well, readers, today I’m going to discuss Evans’s interest in symbols, and then what has become of representations he influenced.

Many of the pictures Evans took of businesses have a symbol that conveys the trade conducted Walker evans, shoeshinealong with the words telling viewers what was done there. The semiotics of such representation interested him. Many of his representations work with symbols and semiotics—so much so that I actually did a bit of research ‘cause I was curious to see if anybody had written about this aspect of his work. It doesn’t look like it has been. So, briefly, I’m going to!

Remember semiotics, reader? They are a type of symbol that conveys meaning without words. If you see a cluster of pink of red valentines (in chocolate boxes, cards, or balloons) in the local drugstore, for example, you do not need to be told “they are for Valentine’s day.” A pink or red valentine is associated with the holiday enough for the connection to be made wordlessly—purely by the symbol.

I think he is playing with symbolism in this intriguing photograph. Obviously, this is a photography Evans, entry to photography studiostudio, of a sort. The manicules point to the door where would-be portrait subjects walk in. (The idea of “photos” overwhelms the picture, to me, but it appears to be the entry to a driving school as well.) Like many of his photographs, it is of a business. But it’s also a photograph, unlike the others, that is about photography: the studio mirrors and recapitulates the actions of taking a picture. You walk into a dark place that seems to be in some way reminiscent of the aperture of a camera. Indeed, it is an aperture, in the sense of opening.

So Evans, early in his career, is having fun with the idea of photography and what auteur and subject do to make a photography. It’s even multiply determined, with the two manicules putting the entrant into their sights.

But the legacy of his photography has become, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, divested of play of European influence, or theory. Weather-beaten signage and old advertising logo’s like those pictured by Evans have been, for several decades now, a preferred décor in mid-level burger joints (those that proudly describe themselves so).

Indeed, what most struck me about this exhibit was the change in what the representations evoke. The same qualities that represented income inequality in the 1930s—the poor, weather-beaten quality of the wood and signage—now represents a sanitized past in those mid-level restaurants. A cheery past where 5¢ a photograph means that objects and services back then were cheap as water, easily affordable, and for everybody.

The forms are thus a fit subject for nostalgia. What they embody in these restaurants is a type of American optimism that takes posted, weather-beaten signs and prices as a guarantee of obstacles overcome, because stuff was so laughably low in price—and because history tells us that the hardships of the 1930s were eventually overcome. Perhaps this décor is a form of wish that obstacles in the present will also dissolve.

Let Us Now Consider Walker Evans, Part I

This post is going to continue my museum adventures. Last year, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see American Photographs by Walker Evans, an exhibit that recreated his ground-breaking show of the 1930s, also at MOMA. (Last year’s exhibit celebrated the 75th anniversary of that exhibit, also called American Photographs.  The photographs were later captured in his book with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on southern sharecroppers during the 1930s.

For most of us, a lot of these photographs are quite familiar, particularly of the farm families in Alabama. Evans, Allie Mae BurroughsThe photograph on the left, of Allie Mae Burroughs, for example, I think of in the same category as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (below on the right); a kind of “we look at the 1930s poor and in them, see the human face” moment that have served as examples of American photography in the American century as long as I’ve been an adult. They exerted a lot of influence. Lange-MigrantMother02




So the surprise I’ll be talking about in this blog is how different they looked from what I thought I had gazed on so frequently, and how different Evans’s photography seemed as a result.

First, most are tiny. I include here a shot of MOMA’s book commemorating the exhibition, which displays a sheet of contact prints. Most of the photographs are Evans, book cover showing tiny imagesthe size of one of these prints.

And to top it off, they are surrounded by a great deal of white matte backing that dwarfs the image, so that the entire representation is about 8 ½ x 11, surrounded by silver frame. Part of the impact of seeing poverty in these two photographs has always been the “we look at the poor and see their human face” reciprocal gaze (or, semi-reciprocal semi-gaze).

But the size of the Evans photographs nearly obviates the possibility of reciprocity, as if we were looking through the wrong end of the telescope. (I have also included a picture of the Burroughs photograph on the wall—yet even that doesn’t convey the full effect of all that white space surrounding the figure. shot on the wall) The original size distances us from the subjects far more than their more conventional reproduction—as bigger—does.Evans, allie mae burroughs in context framed

The American Photographs project always seemed like an offshoot of American realism and filled with sympathy toward those portrayed. The sizing makes it clear that these are as much representations of another piece of realism, though—the scientific specimen—as much as of the human face. Evans seems much less sympathetic toward them as a result.

The museum’s notes on the exhibition also decenter these photographs slightly from an American context, making it clear that Evans was influenced by French photographers and their work documenting the working class. In fact, that piece of the exhibit shifted my idea of what Evans main reciprocity focus was: more on the art of other photographers then on his subjects, perhaps.

Part II soon!

Carleton Watkins: Into the West

I recently went to New York’s Metropolitan Museum to see several exhibits (most notably, El Greco, of whom your Meta-ist is very fond). But the exhibit I found most interesting was not the one I went to see but one I ducked into spontaneously: the nineteenth-century photographs of Carleton Watkins.

Watkins was a very early photographer of the American West. The exhibit featured Yosemite primarily. His photographs influenced then-president Abraham Lincoln to preserve the area. You can see the Met’s online collection of his photography here and there is also a website dedicated to his work:

I include a sample so you can see the type of work he did. Two things about this strike me as someone interested in nineteenth-century archives. First, his work is not well known and seldom exhibited; indeed, according to it had never been gathered together in one place prior to the Web site. This is such an example of how much the archives contain that is still underresearched. His work influenced the later Ansel Adams, a much better known (and more remunerated) nature photographer known for his work on Yosemite.Watkins, Merced River

But the second thing is simply the amazing amount of physical labor that went into developing the art of the American West. The exhibit included the heavy wooden cameras and information on the heavy plates of glass he toted up the mountains—in service to representations of them that resulted in their preservation. More tellingly, perhaps, it included the amount of hours—way into the double digits—that it took to travel from San Francisco to Yosemite, part of the way on roads, the west of the way in pure wilderness on pack mules. It reminded me of accounts of the architect Julia Morgan, another Bay area based artist (although of a later time), in going to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon. When she first began to consult regarding the architecture, the trip took nearly 2 full days. We tend to forget that roads had not been forged when the art that would define these areas began to be developed.

Perhaps this strikes me in Watkins’s case because photography has become nearly an effortless art form (or seemingly so) in the age of the selfie–and also, perhaps, because California in the mid-twentieth century was so associated with ease and abundance. It was good to be reminded of how much effort was expended in breaking the ground. In his life, the aftermath of his photographic career was very sad: a lot of his work was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he was penniless for a period of time, and is buried in an unmarked grave. He deserves many salutes for his beautiful work. So let this be one.

Carrie Mae Weems is Wow, Part III

For my final post on photographer Carrie Mae Weems (see here and here for earlier posts on the recent retrospective exhibition of her work), I want to look at her “Constructing History” series. In it, she reappropriates iconic images from the 1960s to the near present, staging them with her students in tableaux and photographing the result.

At times, her image is fairly close to that of the iconic photographs, Suspended Belief, of Kent State killingssuch as the one from the National Guard-student confrontation at Kent State over the Vietnam War in the 1970s (first two images). Kent_State_massacreAt other times, like one representing the Dallas motorcade in which President Kennedy was shot (second two images), Weems makes a stylized version that foregrounds its very iconicity—it’s an image frozen in time and seemingly partly about its own fame. “Constructing History” shares concerns with “From Here I Saw What Happened” in that both are about a kind of photographic intertextuality:  how do we see these pictures in time?  Who speaks in these pictures, and who speaks back?

Unlike the earlier projects I’ve written about, however, “Constructing History” is fairly recent. The images were made in 2008, unlike “American Icons,” which is a product of the late 1980s, and “From Here I Saw What Happened,” which was done in the mid-1990s. What I particularly like about it is that it makes her concerns very explicit–how we each embody and have our own perspective on history. And, unlike her earlier series, it is not photographic only; the tableaux are available for viewing as well as the images made from them. (Part of the process of making them is shown in a video from Art21, the wonderful site about contemporary artists. The video also shows more images than her Web site does.)

In the tableaux and the photographs, Kennedy motorcadeher students embody and take on the perspective of people from the past; moreover, we see the tableaux in a slightly different perspective than that of the original photographs. The series plays with the literalness of three-dimensionality to make it a metaphor: We each have our own perspective on, and bring another dimension to, events. In that way, her work is not only about inclusion of other perspectives; it is about making inclusion real by literalizing the variance in perspective.

The Art21 video links the concerns of “Constructing History” with her earlier concerns of reappropriating images and telling different stories as a result. The first major blow, about Kennedy assasinationI have to share one of the stories in the video here. When Weems first developed her “From Here I Saw What Happened” series, Harvard University (which owned some of the original daguerreotypes) threatened to sue her. Then, after some legal wrangling, they dropped the suit but wanted a payment each time one of the Weems images was used. And the end result? They bought the Weems photographs.

Good on them at last. What a fitting arc of history.


Carrie Mae Weems Is Wow, Part II

In a recent post, I talked about the photographer Carrie Mae Weems and the recent retrospective of her work, which I had the great good fortune to see, in particular a series called “From Here I Saw What Happened…and I Cried.” But as I said, she has a tremendous body of work and I want to comment on several of them. Today, I’m going to focus on several images from an earlier series, “American Icons.” (Her web site contains links to representations of most of her work, including a lot not in the retrospective; I’ve linked to it through these posts. Go see, reader, go see.)

“American Icons” is a series of photographs of rather ordinary American domestic interiors…with racist figurines placed among them as decor. Mini-models of what were once called minorities, or worse. African-Americans as cooks and porters; Asians as exotic Orientals…you get the drift. Weems’s cultural commentary follows from what I’ve just described here: these figures are casually grouped among the ordinary and quotidian. Interpretation: racism is ubiquitous, ordinary, so common and so casual in the domestic space we don’t see it until it is specifically called out. And, racial Others are commodities for work and amusement: these figurines are their proxies, naturalizing servitude and exoticism.

But. (Or, maybe I should say “and” instead.) One of the things I love about Weems is her ability to comment on multiple levels. I don’t think the (one-time) ordinariness of racism is the only message here. One of the images that struck me most forcefully was a photograph of two African-American cook figurines placed in the kitchen. American icons figure I want to write aboutSomething about the juxtaposition of these figures with the kitchen implements around them seemed extraordinarily meaningful to me. I love the use of everyday objects for their symbolism. So, let me do the meta thing and say what I think their symbolism is, and why.

First, these figurines are tiny. As you can see from the photograph, they are only slightly taller than the counter molding. Their tininess doesn’t seem like a simple representation of actual size: it seems, given the way they are juxtaposed against the molding, a meaningful element in itself. (The molding almost serves as a way to measure their height vis-à-vis the ordinary kitchen items that surround them.) The extreme miniturization gives them a slightly uncanny quality when they are frozen in a large photograph. A companion photograph shows another cook who is even smaller. american icons, even smaller mammyThe placement of the photographs together gives the impression that these figures—and the racism they symbolize—is static or shrinking. Frozen. Not growing, even if being named (in a sense) through this portrayal.

Then there is that juxtaposition. The first thing that struck me, actually, was the placement of the two figures underneath the common kitchen item known as a whisk. Why did it strike me? After all, it’s commonly used to mix things together (eggs and milk; flour and water; and so on), so it’s in almost every kitchen. However, in my childhood my mother more commonly, colloquially, called it a beater–as in “hand me the egg beater.” This may be a regionalism (egg beaters are more commonly the electronic kind, I think), but I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, 100+ miles away from Carrie Mae Weems’s birthplace of Portland. So if it is a regionalism, it may be one she knows as well.

So the African-American figurines are placed below something whose reference term reminds one of slavery—a beater. Once that leapt into my mind, the other implements—again, very common—seemed designed to make viewers think of the cruel treatment of African-Americans under slavery: the iron (given the context, it made me think of the “branded with red-hot irons” in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom), and other kitchen implements that are about tearing and mangling—the grater, for example. These images seem to work almost in the way poetry does, leading to a chain of associations. In this case, the associations are not about the nuture a kitchen could evoke, but about punishment: beatings and branding. The flesh (of the cantaloupe) cut open.

If the groupings seem poised next to things whose name and function could evoke slavery, they seem, of course, frozen in some time before the Civil Rights Movement. (As indeed they are in a larger sense: the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s rendered the casual domestic placement of such figurines unacceptable.) Why?

I think it’s because they seem to be always underneath a light source that they can’t seem to reach. A light source—the electrical socket—is insistently in the pictures, but not in a way meaningful or accessible to the figurines. It’s only visible, in fact, to the viewer. Particularly in the photograph of the couple, the beater is their closest element, not the light sockets. If we draw out the chain of associations, light (the Civil Rights movement as new dawn, illumination, power) is just out of reach for these characters. One could even extrapolate a harshness: they are unable to plug in to a power that is there, but not within their grasp.

Again, it is a tribute to Weems’s work that this chain of associations can be so evocative. Soon, I’ll post a third observation, about her representations of history generally.