Two recent talks – Carrie Mae Weems at Wells on 3/4 and Ellen Harvey at Cornell on 3/9 – had me thinking about how we artists look at and think about our own work.
Carrie Mae Weems "Untitled (Museum)" 2007
Carrie Mae Weems is a powerful presence – grounded and commanding – and a self-described “woman in a constant state of longing for a richer, fuller future.” During her talk at Wells she presented a retrospective slideshow and spoke passionately about her experiences making art. Mindful of her mainly undergraduate audience, she peppered her recollections with advice to and questions for young artists. (You have to make what you want to see in the world. You have to create the way you want to be portrayed.)
Carrie Mae Weems from "The Kitchen Table Series" 1990
From the start, she was inspired to create the images of black women that she wanted to see, but didn’t exist (The Kitchen Table Series). Through the experience of exploring the questions raised by The Kitchen Table Series, she had a transformative, grounding experience that enabled her to move forward, explore more deeply, and set the foundation for her work as a mature artist (the incident involved receiving a phone call from herself, which I chose to accept as if reading Marquez).
Central to her work is the questioning of power and what it means to engage and challenge power. (What are you committed to?) Her genuine smile flashed and disappeared quickly, repeatedly as she spoke about the questions that drive her. A recent series (photo at top) has her standing – solid, open, upright – in front of various famous museums, embodying the black female artist, challenging entry. (How do we recognize, discuss, dismantle power?) The message and images are more powerful for their simplicity, but the ramifications they imply are complex and varied.
Many other bodies of work were presented exploring slavery, architecture (Rome makes you feel that you must rush into the arms of the State), assassinations as defining civil rights moments, place and community. She showed a recent video in which she expresses her love of Fellini’s work but inserts herself where he has not included her. (Fellini failed me).
Ellen Harvey "Bad Boy Klimt Lives!"
Ellen Harvey, speaking at Cornell this week, began by pointing out that she starting working from a place of despair. Having trained obsessively to gain technical skills as a painter, she realized that “painting doesn’t do anything well anymore” and is now only a signifier of “art.” Non-artists were always telling her she should paint some beautiful thing they’d seen – a sunset, a neighbor’s dog, their daughter. She became interested in taking their suggestions and examining the cliches to see what was or could be interesting. This lead to her most well-known work, the NY Beautification Project, in which she painted miniature landscapes atop existing graffiti. The work questions the usefulness of painting, perceptions of graffiti and preconceptions about who gets to make art. In response to this project, The Secession Contemporary Art Center in Vienna commissioned Harvey to create a work. She convinced them to hire someone to tag the outside of the building with the phrase “Bad Boy Klimt Lives!” She then painted fragments of the crown jewel of their collection, Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, atop the graffiti, which lead around the outside of the building (despite having permission, she was arrested making this work and had to be bailed out of jail by the museum).
Her other projects have explored street portraiture, museum collections (what’s seen vs. unseen) and other subjects – most examine a situation and question what is needed or called for. She describes her overarching theme this way, and I paraphrase:
as an artist you’re always trying to do something extraordinary and change the world and you always fail. This links art to the greater experience. Your actions are more symbolic than real. I’m now less interested in cliches and more interested in aspirations vs. reality.
Her monument to this idea of failure is The Museum of Failure, which she explains in the linked video.
As someone prone to perfectionist shutdowns when making my own work, Harvey’s breezy acceptance of failure as the inevitable end to any creative endeavor was both freeing and depressing to me. Her consciously messy hair, slightly Fuddish (Elmer, that is) British accent and self-deprecating manner all served to support her general attitude towards art-making. And she demonstrates how the acceptance of failure is the antidote for perfectionism.
Like Carrie Mae Weems, she describes her work as inspired by questions and advises artists to follow their curiosity and their same questions will arise over and over. “The job of art,” Harvey said, “is to seduce people into thinking.”