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The Photographic and Film/Video Art of Lorna Simpson

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

April 16 - July 10, 2006

Miami Art Museum

October 13, 2006 to January 21, 2007

The Whitney Museum of Art, New York

February 8 to May 6, 2007

The Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston

September 7 - December 2, 2007

"Waterbearer" by Simpson

"Waterbearer," by Lorna Simpson, gelatin silver print, vinyl lettering, 55 by 77 inches, 1986, collection Sean and Mary Kelly, New York

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.

"Five Day Forecast" by Simpson

"Five Day Forecast," by Lorna Simpson, 5 black-and-white prints, 15 engraved plastic plaques, photographs 24 by 20 inches, 24 1/2 by 97 inches overall, 1998, Collection of Barbara and Aaron Levine, partial and promised gift to the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in honor of Ned Rifkin's tenure as Director (2002-2005) and Olga M. Viso's appointment as Director, 2005, photograph by Michele Leight

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.

"Wigs II" by Simpson

"Wigs II," by Lorna Simpson, serigraph of fifty-four panels with nineteen felt text panels, 98 by 265 inches overall, 1994, courtesy the artist, photograph by Michele Leight

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 movie.

"The Park" by Simpson
"The Park," by Lorna Simpson, serigraph on 6 felt panels with 2 felt text panels, 67 by 67 1/2 inches, 1995, Collection Emily Fisher Landau, New York (Amart Investments LLC), photograph by Michele Leight

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 of Innocence").

"The Staircase" by Simpson

"The Staircase," by Lorna Simpson, serigraph on 6 felt panels with 1 felt test panel, 66 inches square, 1998

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, which

meant she was in earshot of footsteps and

conversations. As the climbers or climber

reached the 10th step, there was a break in the

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 in

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.

"Cloudscape" by Simpson

"Cloudscape" by Lorna Simpson, single-projection video installation, video transferred to DVD, 3 minutes, sound, 2004, courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

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.

"Cloud" by Simpson

"Cloud," by Lorna Simpson, serigraph on 9 felt panels, 84 inches square, 2005, courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

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?

"Corridor (Phone)" by Simpson

"Corridor (Phone)," by Lorna Simpson, digital chromatic print mounted to Plexigass, 27 by 72 inches, 2003, courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

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."

"Corridor (Mirror)" by Simpson

"Corridor (Mirror)," by Lorna Simpson, digital chromatic print mounted to Plexiglass, 27 by 72 inches, 2003, collection Heidi and Erik Murkoff, Los Angeles

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)" by Simpson

"Untitled (2 Necklines)," by Lorna Simpson, 2 gelatin silver prints, 11 engraved plastic plaques photographs 36 inches each, 40 by 100 inches overall, 1989, National Gallery of Art, Washington, gift of the Collectors Committee, photograph by Michele Leight

"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.

"Bio" by Simpson

"Bio," by Lorna Simpson, 18 Polaroid pints, 9 engraved plastic plaques, 98 by 162 inches, 1992, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, gift of Maremont Corporation by exchange, purchased through funds provided by AT&T New York/New Vision, photograph by Michele Leight

In the accompanying catalog, ""Lorna Simpson," Okwui Enwesor explains the significance of the text:

"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."

"Easy to Remember" by Simpson

From "Easy to Remember," by Lorna Simpson, video installation, 16mm blanc-and-white film transferred to DVD, 2 minutes, 35 seconds, sound, 2001, Denver Art Museum, funds from Peter Norton Family Foundation, Cathey and Richard Finlon, and department acquisition funds

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 are universal.

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 "every woman".

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 film/video.

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.

"She" by Simpson

"She," by Lorna Simpson, 4 Polaroid prints, 1 engraved plastic plaque, 29 by 85 1/2 inches, 1992, Collection Jack and Sandra Guthman, Chicago

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 the head:

"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.

Click here to order the "Lorna Simpson" catalogue, published by Abrams in 2006 for 55 percent off its $45 list price.


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