By Michele Leight
Deploying an unsparing yet elegant lens, the
photographic and film/video artist Lorna Simpson plumbs the depths
of politically charged issues such as race, racial profiling,
gender, violence and identity without falling back on sentiment.
The surface textures of her gorgeous images
are as slick and cold as the topics they allude to or depict are
smoldering and often disturbing.
Simpson provokes with finesse, filtering her
unique contemporary vision through the documentary photography
tradition of the past and the Hollywood "film noir"
movies of the 40s and 50s.
In Simpson's hands the camera is an potent
and probing truth-seeking device. She also knows how to heighten
the sense of drama and suspense by what she does not divulge.
It is the absence of violence in her films and images that lulls
the viewer into a false sense of security, like a Hitchcock movie,
when suddenly the seriousness of the situation emerges.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960, Simpson
has charted her own course with an unflinching inner eye focused
on African-American history and present and future chapters of
that history. Her interest in film is broad and important, both
in the context of her own art and in its effect on her generation.
There is a wonderful essay by Hilton Als in the accompanying exhibition
catalog, which highlights this.
Unhappy histories sometimes lurk in the shadows,
like slavery in the past, or the unresolved legacies of African-Americanism,
or independent womanhood in any race today, but the journey continues,
and Simpson's imagery suggests anything is possible.
Much of Simpson's oeuvre is conceptual and
accompanied by textual snippets, at the side rather than plastered
across à la Barbara Kruger. As such they are "statements"
rather than beautiful works of art, but Simpson is also capable
of producing some exquisite works that stand on their own aesthetic,
such as "Waterbearer," shown at the top of this article,
and her large and colorful "Corridor" compositions.
The exhibition currently on view at the Whitney
Museum of Art in New York spans 20 years, encompassing 6 film
installations, 17 image-and-text pieces (1985-92), and seven super-sized
photographs on felt (1994-2005).
The Whitney show was organized by The American
Federation of Arts, curated by AFA Adjunct Curator Elaine Posner
and the New York installation was organized by Shamim Momin, associate
curator of The Whitney Museum of Art. The exhibition premiered
at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles where it was
on view from April 16 to July 10, 2006, and then it was shown
at the Miami Art Museum from October 13, 2006 to January 21, 2007.
The last venue will be the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston
from September 7 to December 2, 2007.
Ultimately, Simpson's art is not about victimization
- that is firmly left behind in the dust. Her modern imagery is
about taking back the power, and carving a new African-American
niche, or female niche, however the viewer chooses. The truths
exposed in Simpson's art - and she is truthful - are grounded
in the footprints of history, with all the painful realities picked
clean from the carcass, the bones laid bare. There is a sadness
in her vision, but a sense of moving forward, of independence
from the chains of memory.
Schooled in the "documentary" photography
tradition at The School of Visual Arts in New York and later at
the University of California at San Diego where she studied performance
and film, Simpson broke new ground with her pared down images
and accompanying text, while continuing to take documentary photos
for her notebooks. Words became the perfect foil for imagery that
is deafening in its silence, devoid of emotion and extraordinarily
slick - the antithesis of the expressive, emotionally charged,
or sentimental "documentary" image that sought a reaction
from the viewer.
The earlier, spare imagery of the 80s photographs
gradually gives way to the "Public Sex" series, which
expands the narrative. Surface and hard edges soften with images
of parks, public spaces, and New York's mythic, towering buildings
projected onto felt. These large-scale photographs, devoid of
people and deeply melancholy, represent Simpson's transition into
film, like the backdrop for a "film noir" detective
Huge works like "The Park," (1996)
evoke the history books of our youth, when we studied great civilizations
of the past that also indulged in monumental architecture, grand
entrances and commemorative sculpture - The Aztecs, the Romans
and Assirians, to name only a few.
Simpson's abandoned buildings and vast cityscapes
disorient as they fast-forward us in our own times, as if we were
viewing our civilization with hindsight. It is without the original
inhabitants that we now view Mayan ruins, Petra or Nimrud. New
York without people is a desolate landscape, transported to history.
The 80s were a serious time for some Americans,
especially in New York and Los Angeles, as many suddenly found
an unknown virus in their midst. The cautionary tone of photographs
like "The Park," painted in 1995, hark back to a time
when hundreds were dying of AIDS in America, and the artist lost
many friends to the disease. Clandestine assignations haunt "The
Clock Tower," and anonymous sex - in parks, public toilets,
"the baths" - are alluded to in the Public Sex images.
AIDS continues to infect disproportionate numbers of African-American
men and women in New York and America, and, tragically, in Africa.
(See The City Review article on "Harvest
The text panels that accompany many of her
works are sometimes cryptic and sometimes poetic and sometimes
quite literal. The panel that accompanies "The Staircase,"
a 1998 image, for example significantly adds to a viewer's evocative
understanding of the work:
"Her apartment was on the ground floor,
meant she was in earshot of footsteps and
conversations. As the climbers or climber
reached the 10th step, there was a break in
rhythm of the climbing, because its riser was
slightly lower than the rest. From her apartment
it sounded as though they had tripped,
especially those who were unfamiliar with this
inconsistency. She could hear the warnings
offered by tenants as they guided their guests
to their floor; particularly when they were
assisted in carrying something; the apologies
when they had forgotten to mention it in
time; or the conversations that took place
midstream, that indicated the level of
familiarity between climbers. There were some
other sounds, not too long ago that seemed
to be coming from the landing below. They were
faint and unrecognizable. It did not sound
like talking, but more like the rhythmic lifting
of a heavy object."
Simpson is African-American, and all personal
histories must inhabit an artist's work, but what emerges in passing
from Simpson's early to later works (in chronological order) is
a casting off of the mantle of the "specific" in favor
of a universal vision that anyone can relate to. Thankfully, Simpson
never deserts the issues and causes that continue to affect African-Americans.
She is honest in suggesting that in some respects race affects
African-American men especially harshly, like racial profiling,
and many of Simpson's portraits evoke mug shots and the "line-up"
of criminal investigations. It is an ongoing issue, and never
absent from any news channel or newspapers in America.
It is impossible to discount the political
implications of Simpson's imagery, whether male or female. In
the first image of the show, "Gestures/Reenactments,"
created in 1985, Simpson portrays the powerlessness of the black
male, the machismo and fear of castration, which play out in the
often disturbingly misogynistic hip hop music videos of pop culture.
Misogynistic lyrics are particularly harsh in Rap songs, and Simpson's
images of women often seem to bear the metaphorical scars of misplaced
violence and the male desire for dominance. Desire in many forms
repeat over and over again.
By 2004, however, Simpson has culled a very
different black male icon in "Cloudscape." Here, the
macho male is rescued by poetry and lyricism - the magical mist
that all but obliterates him - suggesting he has possibly escaped
the prisons of violence, anger and despair. It is a beautiful
image, even hopeful, although it is characteristically unresolved.
These transformations, comparisons and inferences
do not diminish the injustices of the past; rather Simpson suggests
that moving beyond that past establishes a new identity and the
body of work currently on view at the Whitney offers a refreshing
new "take" on African-Americanism. We are far more likely
to think of an African-American as a sports superstar, or a high-profile
rapper. Simpson projects a more mainstream, integrated African-American
icon, and her imagery suggests we are conditioned to think in
stereotypes. Does an African American have to be a superstar to
have an identity or be accepted into society?
This shift is very effectively captured in
Simpson's lyrical film/video "Corridor." in which dual
dramas of the past and present occupy the same screen. The left
vignette portrays an African American woman dressed as the world
once used to see her - as a slave or servant in a plantation house,
with white apron, turbaned headdress, and simple calico dress:
"Mammy" in "Gone With the Wind."
The screen on the right portrays a contemporary
African-American woman, a well-to-do homeowner in a modernist
interior, clearly in control of her own destiny, even if it is
lonely. It is a major step forward and it is not ending there.
It is the beginning of something new. In between these beautifully
filmed vignettes is a corridor through which the protagonists
pass, hand in hand with history, no longer dominated by it.
The "Corridor" series is stunning
and a strong break from the more serial and didactic early black-and-white
images. Although they are clearly contrived, or posed, they are
unambiguous, powerful and beautiful.
All of the subjects in the photographic stills
and the film/videos are black, Asian or Hispanic, establishing
Simpson's commitment to non-white representation.
This focus serves to highlight the absence
of African-American imagery to a great extent on the walls of
art museums, or as "artistic" subjects. Whether in literature,
or in artistic images, or films, depictions of African-Americans
in the past were most often as victims or servile, whereas whites
were portrayed as the powerful and masterful.
That is the point Simpson is making by repeating
the images of blackness and brownness over and over again, so
they are imprinted on our consciousness along with the familiar
white images we have logged thus far. Until now, it has been the
brown-skinned person that has looked for a positive reflection
of himself or herself on art museum walls, in great literature,
or in film. The invisibility of the black persona is also conveyed
in the partially visible or averted faces and rear views of Simpson's
subjects that deny access to the viewer. This also gives her subjects
the power and control over us.
"Untitled (2 Necklines)," 1989 work
in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington,
offers a cropped head, and body. Only the back of a woman is presented
in "Figure," (1991, gelatin silver print, 8 engraved
plastic plaques. Photograph 73 x 82 ½ inches overall, Ellipse
Foundation-Contemporary Art Collection, Amsterdam).
The absence of artistic black imagery until
recently is similar to the absence of female artists' names, or
paintings by females in Medieval, or Renaissance art continuing
until the turn of the 19th century, where female artists were
absent, denied a "voice," or a place in museums alongside
their male counterparts. (See The City
Review article on "Drawn and Colored by a Lady" exhibition.)
This was a reflection of their place in society, (as it still
is in many societies), where they were subservient to men and
did not even have the vote or the right to work. It is the absence
of representation Simpson is getting at in her imagery. When it
is not visible, it is negated - voided.
What remains constant throughout the exhibition
is the audiovisual "mix." What is a photograph that
is more like "art" and references poetry, or literature?
The inability to categorize Simpson's work exposes our urge to
classify, compartmentalize and pigeonhole. In the context of gender
or race, that urge can be particularly harmful, even viciously
destructive and violent, as history has proven repeatedly. Historically,
when a person or group is "categorized" unfavorably,
they are often viciously victimized. The Holocaust, Rwanda, the
Kurds are recent examples. History has many.
Simpson challenges conventional notions of
gender, identity, culture, history, memory - and violence - by
pitting image against text, like swordplay. There are no depictions
of actual violence, but it is inferred in the voids and dark shadows
- harboring the malicious, the spy, the eavesdropper, the gossip,
the bigot - that engulf her subjects.
Violence is implied in the ironic, poetic or
sardonic text that accompanies the early photographs especially.
The clinical backgrounds, devoid of personalizing details, recall
the prison cell, the institutions where societies outcasts are
locked away, the internal no-fly zones we create for ourselves,
or even impose on those we profess to love. The lack of specificity
is deliberate, freeing the viewer so they may draw their own conclusions.
The interpretations of Simpson's clinical environments and women
in white shifts are endless.
In the accompanying catalog, ""Lorna
Simpson," Okwui Enwesor explains the significance of the
"Much of Simpson's work imbricates...language,
speech and text. Language is employed like a lever to pry open
the lid of the unconscious. Here text plays a subsidiary role.
However, when it approximates speech, it functions like a memory
trigger in relation to visual cue. The text panels also confront
the viewer with a fundamental contradiction between the sense
of vision and voice as separate forms of knowing: between seeing
and speaking. If we are to reconcile this contradiction, then
much of Simpson's work is not simply annexed to text/image relationship,
it is fundamentally audiovisual."
In one intriguing video, "Easy to Remember,"
there are a series of fifteen competing male and female lips,
in stillness and in motion.
Simpson's work is elegant and often sexy, and
her images exude an indifference that is directed at the viewer.
Many of the images convey a sense of alienation and loss that
One of the finest and most powerful works in
the exhibition is "You're Fine." A 1988 work, it consists
of four color Polaroid prints, 15 engraved plastic plaques, 21
ceramic pieces (19 letters, 2 apostrophes), and measures 40 by
103 inches overall. A modern take perhaps on Velaquez's voluptuous
"Rokeby Venus," it is in the collection of Peter Norton
and Eileen Harris Norton in Santa Monica.
"You're Fine" is a lonely depiction
of womanhood that sizzles with obvious references to the gender
politics of the workplace, the "casting couch" and the
physical health examination. What is a woman worth without her
health, especially in nations where health and child bearing might
be her only asset? What was it like to be a woman not so long
ago, without freedom or education or the vote?
Unfortunately, many women today have still
not gained freedom, which makes Simpson's images so haunting.
Although the woman represented in African American, she is also
To the left of the image are the medical/physical/biological
identifications, and to the right is a caption: "Secretarial
Position." Simpson's text is integral to her images. Clearly
race is a constant preoccupation, and specifically what it means
to be African-American.
In the exhibition catalog, Okuwi Enwezor writes
in an essay entitled "The American Sublime and the Racial
Self" that "to confront Simpson's early photographic
work (1985-95) and the elliptical linguistic registers that ring
it like a halo, we have to engage how the disquietingly straightforward,
pared-down images open the viewer up to a vast epistemic field."
"It is a field rooted in a particular type of violence,"
the essay continued, adding "This violence is grounded in
methods of subjection and denial. Access to its disclosure therefore
requires more than the tacit acknowledgment of its historical
base and temporality."
The exhibition catalog is an important addition
to understanding Simpson's work, because the sophisticated and
finely tuned "readings" by all the contributors burrow
deep beneath the glossy surface of her art. It is a fascinating
and essential read for anyone interested in contemporary art and
In the exhibition catalog essay entitled "Rupture,
or the Madness of Race," Okwui Enwezor writes:
"There is in 'the mythology of madness'
the oft repeated story of radical therapy effect by Phillipe Pinel
when he released the madmen and madwomen from their chains in
Bicetre and Salpetriere hospitals in Paris in 1794. Pinel's freeing
of the madmen and madwomen was said to have ushered in a revolution
in the treatment of madness. Not only did he free these men and
women from their literal chains, he simultaneously, through their
de-incarceration, also freed them from the stigma to which the
chain had interminably condemned them beyond repair. By the same
token, Pinel did not so much free the insane from their hellish
confinement as much as he released their madness from total censure.
In this way he returned them back into the world, or rather, into
the social government of the asylum from which the insane had
been banished. And in which for centuries scores languished, under
lock and key, behind high walls, where no 'serene' gaze of rationality
and respectability would ever fall on that insolence that represents
the ruined human character. In America race constitutes its own
form of madness, along with its own asylums and governmentalities.
From the earliest moment that European colonists arrived on the
American shores, race has been the great alloy of a potent social
experiment, one that produced slavery and the plantation economy.
If the Bicetre and Salpetriere hospitals were more than therapeutic
zones - being as they were places of seizure - the confinement
on the plantation under slavery mobilizes similar senses of capture
and stigma. Race in America simultaneously represents the unspeakable
and the irrepressible, as well as an epistemological model of
biological differentiation that produces a prodigious body of
discourse and representation. And like madness in the asylum,
it enjoys a particular kind of censure behind the high walls of
its own asylum. Except, unlike the asylum, which is ringed by
thick, mortared walls and protected by a forbidding gate, the
madness of race exists nakedly visible in the tumescent flesh
of the American social ideal and is practiced in the open terrain
of the cultural landscape."
Lorna Simpson's art is neither didactic nor
predictable. She draws attention to important issues like race
and gender - that can often be overcooked - without earnestness,
defensiveness, or bared fangs. She does not fall back on aggressive
feminist rhetoric. Instead, she gathers the viewer up in her vision,
which is as poetical as it is socially and politically aware.
Historically, great art has been confrontational
and provocative. Simpson's images, whether as moving pictures
or immaculately crafted photographic "stills," challenge
the way we "see" and how images are fed to us. Through
their elegant defiance she shows us how we blindly accept images
as truth. She shows us the power of the "voided" image
and how that impacts on identity.
While viewing her video entitled "Call
Waiting" I could not help notice several men riveted to Simpson's
forthright and unnervingly accurate presentations and interpretations
of male and female behavior in the pursuit of the sexual object,
or the object of desire. Recognition combined with humor was imprinted
on the men's faces. Simpson had not alienated them. There is gentleness
in her approach that is never threatening. But she makes her point.
Awareness can begin with recognition, and expand
to real change over time.
James Mallord William Turner painted "The
Slave Ship" to help an Abolitionist anti-slavery campaign.
Today this famous painting hangs in The Boston Museum of Fine
Arts. John Ruskin (see The City Review article)
called it the one painting he would choose to vouch for Turner's
immortality, both for its moral content and its awesome painterliness.
The painting shows slaves being tossed into swirling surf filled
with hungry sea creatures by slave traders that routinely ploughed
the ocean between Africa and the United States.
Although the slave trade began with the Portuguese,
and was banned in Britain, it was practiced by British sea captains
and flourished in Britain's "colonies" where British
business interests were profitably served by the involuntary enslavement
of hundreds of thousands of Africans - including the cotton plantations
of the American South and the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean.
Jane Austen, also a keen supporter of the Abolitionists, draws
slavery - described as "human cargo" - into the plot
of "Mansfield Park," whose owner was a slave trader.
When the British Abolitionists got wind of
this horrific practice - banned in Britain, but generating huge
profits for the British overseas - they passed out flyers, and
held meetings across the country to raise awareness to ban slavery.
Turner's painting, with its provocative title, caused a furor,
which was his intention.
Insurance on slave cargo only covered drowning
at sea. So the captains threw slaves overboard to "collect"
their insurance when in reality the slaves were thrown overboard
because they were sick, dying, or had already died from disease,
brutality or the inhumane living conditions of the ships, including
over-crowding and starvation.
Images and text are powerful tools for change.
The Abolitionist flyers raised awareness for the practice of slavery
amongst ordinary citizens at a time when there were no mass communication
devices like TVs, radios or the internet. They protested person-to-person
and group-to-group, until the owners and captains of the slave
ships were afraid for their lives or imprisonment, and the practice
of slave trading gradually died out. Today, "She," by
Lorna Simpson, hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, not far
from Turner's "The Slave Ship." It has taken almost
300 years for this to happen.
In a world of cameras, videos, text messages
and sound bites, and laws born of the Abolitionist movement, powerful
imagery and text continue to raise awareness through art like
Simpson's. Slavery still exists in many nations and communities
today, in the silence of homes, in factories and sweatshops, in
poverty-stricken neighborhoods where people are exploited or lost
to drugs, disease and alcohol. Slavery still exists in brothels
and human trafficking rings where children and women are traded
and sold as sexual commodities. Children are often treated like
slaves by their own parents.
In a brilliant, provocative marriage of image
and text, Lorna Simpson's best work is a haunting reminder of
the injustice of any kind of slavery, or denial of freedom, regardless
of race, gender, geography or nationality - in the past and in
our own time.
Simpson's later work, the beautiful films,
and the lyrical black-and-white and color photographs, represent
a continued longing for identity in a world grown increasingly
homogeneous with globalization.
In a body of work spanning 20 years, Simpson's
metamorphosis reveals an artist who has confronted and absorbed
her past. She dishes out her disturbing findings with grace, like
a scientist in a laboratory, and she has the perfect ally in the
camera and the camcorder. She is also a great romantic, most poignantly
in her most recent films, which recall French Independent Cinema
and the elegant, deceptively cool Film Noir genre of Hollywood
in the 40s and 50s. Simpson has absorbed that incredible stylishness,
which smolders and does not reveal all, and even allows bad things
to happen without censure.
One of the great wonders of the 21st century
is that digital technology has allowed artists with meager budgets
and a treasure trove of imagination to enter the fray - bringing
their unique vision with them. It would be something to see a
feature length film by Lorna Simpson, an artist who has studied
film on the West Coast, and whose work acknowledges the influence
of Hollywood past and present. This is important in a nation that
routinely bulldozes down historic buildings, or even entire neighborhoods,
that other nations would preserve forever, especially any structure
in Hollywood that once housed studios that transported films across
continents when such magic was unheard of.
Hollywood's glamour and rich history are skillfully
utilized by Simpson to suit her own purposes. There are echoes
of Andy Warhol in her confrontational subject matter and her preoccupation
with film, but her visual style is the polar opposite of the saturated
silk-screened pop icons, movie stars and soup cans in primary
colors that Warhol delivered to an adoring public with such panache.
Simpson's work draws on literature, poetry,
film and history, past and present, reflecting the multiple layers
of visual imagery now readily available via an abundance of media
and mechanical devices.
Women are the primary focus for Simpson, and
in a fascinating comparison of her work to the protagonists Marianne
Renoir (played by Anna Karina) and Pierrot (Jean Paul Belmondo)
in Jean Luc Goddard's "Pierrot le Fou," Hilton Als writes:
"Marianne never indicates that she needs
to be saved. But she is a woman, and so is born to be incorporated
into the distinctly male ambition to protect and serve a female,
who is then bound to saying his name in return for her rescue,
something she may not have asked for in the first place."
There are strong overtones of Goddard in Simpson's
film/videos, and even in some of the photographs, a filmmaker
renowned for what he does not say. Hilton Als expands on this
in the exhibition catalog:
"Photographs do not speak, but they can
speak volumes about what the photographer means them to say about
his or her subject, living and breathing and dying in the frame.
But the best or most arresting photographs deny instant or even
considered verbalization; they shut us up, just as Pierrot shuts
up in the face of Marianne's cinematic being. In a career now
spanning nearly twenty five years, Lorna Simpson has now created
a gallery of Marianne Renoirs, sometimes seen in multiples, sometimes
standing or sitting alone in a single frame, faceless. That Simpson
insists on her female subjects being absolutely still in her photographs,
and, at times in her recent video work, is a bit of direction
that positions her work closer to cinema, which is composed of
single frames too. And as viewers of her work know, Simpson is
resolute in her belief in, and collaboration with, the frame -
be they frames that move or not. But no matter the genre, Simpson's
images are linked to the cinema in what they convey to the viewer
ceaselessly, hungrily, rapturously."
It is the universal sense of longing and desire
that makes Simpson's art important, a longing that does not bear
the stamp of any particular race. Hilton Als hits the nail on
"In Simpson's world nothing is 'whole'
- not blackness, not femaleness, not a photograph, not a video.
What interests her are the limitations to be found in beautiful
forms, such as her Mariannes (from Goddard's 'Pierrot le Fou')
moving from the gallery wall to the video screen, first carrying
a white pitcher of water, as in her 1986 piece 'The Waterbearer,'
and then sitting on the phone, listening to her interlocutor as
though trying to find herself, as in the 1997 video installation
Interior/Exterior/Full/Empty. And she is trying to find herself.
That is Simpson's primary narrative as a director, the search
for the self. Which is cinema's subject."
Some might go so far as to say it is everyone's
favorite subject, the driving force behind all great literature,
poetry and art.
Okwui Enwezor is dean of academic affairs at
the San Francisco Art Institute. Hilton Als is a staff writer
for The New Yorker. He lives in New York City.