Progression of Art
Sink / Ivy Wallpaper
This photograph shows a dollhouse sink set at an angle to, and casting a shadow on, wallpaper patterned with leaves and lines. The sink is positioned at the center of the photograph, overlapping with an intersection between the lines of the wallpaper and is framed by enormous leaves, on the wallpaper, that draw attention to the ambiguities of scale within the image. These leaves are as large as the sink itself and the faucets and support for the sink overwhelm the small basin, which is filled with water.
Simmons considered Sink/Ivy Wallpaper to be her first mature work. This image simultaneously alludes to the traditions of fine art photography, through the use of black and white film rather than color, and to the snapshot, through the placement of the sink at the centre of the frame. The camera is used to create an illusion of reality, rendering the sink lifelike whilst remaining self-conscious, with the menacing scale of the wallpaper's leaves drawing attention to the ways in which the image is constructed, representing a sink in a performative manner. Simmons has spoken of her own interest in photographing the miniature sink as connected to ideas of memory, time and space; this sense of skewed proportion can be seen as mirroring the distortions of memory or as suggestive of the confining nature of suburban life.
Gelatin silver print - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Untitled (Woman Standing on Head)
Untitled (Woman Standing on Head) shows a doll in a miniature kitchen, complete with countertops, sink, stove and refrigerator. In the centre of the image, a doll clad in the dress and high heels of a suburban housewife, with neatly bobbed hair, is doing a handstand on the tiles, surrounded by miniature plates and cutlery strewn across the floor. This is the most extreme of a series of images taken by Simmons showing the doll in various positions, including sitting at the table and standing in the corner, around the kitchen.
In Untitled (Woman Standing on Head), as in the series' other images, this doll is alone in an everyday domestic setting. The positioning of the camera above, looking down on the scene from an angle, creates a sense of claustrophobia and the image offers no explanation for the odd behaviour of the doll, who can be read as hysterical in her senseless subversion of her body, which mirrors the way in which the image itself quietly questions expectations of women in mid-century domestic settings. Simmons' use of black and white, with strong tonal contrasts, distances the viewer from the image's action and is suggestive of film noir, heightening the sense of the figure's alienation and the scene's uncanniness.
Gelatin silver print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In this black and white photograph, at the centre of the frame stands a revolver pistol that has been attached at its base to a pair of female doll legs. Wires that help the hybrid doll-gun figure stay upright are only faintly visible. The figure is harshly spotlit, and just behind, its own dark, sharp shadow is visible against the plain light-colored backdrop.
This work comes from Simmons' Objects on Legs series, which seeks to question and critique the role of women in society. In the series, many consumer objects, including miniature dollhouses, cakes, guns, purses, cameras, and musical instruments are perched atop shapely feminine legs, sometimes standing, sometimes reclining. The simplicity of these images leaves them open to interpretation. This combination of female legs with a revolver, a weapon which is generally understood as a male object (even as a symbol of the male phallus) creates a bizarrely gendered object which is both alluring and dangerous. Or perhaps we can read the image as a commentary on, and reaction against, violence against women. However, Simmons explains that "When I made that picture in the early 90s I wasn't really thinking about guns and violence. I was thinking about a woman character in a film noir world who put it in her purse, it was more about a caricature who was a gun toting strong woman, a Raymond Chandler kind of character, it was very romantic. Now my friend from New York, who is very active against gun violence, wants to use it as an edition to sell to raise money and consciousness about gun control and gun violence, something I really care about and think about."
As in much of Simmons' work, this image confronts, upsets, and confuses accepted notions of binary relationships (such as male and female). It also follows her trend of playing with scale. The images in this series were presented at life-size, with some prints measuring seven feet tall. Thus viewers of the photographs are faced with inanimate hybrid objects that are the same size as real people, creating a discomforting experience.
Gelatin silver print - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Café of the Inner Mind: Men's Room
This color photograph features three male ventriloquist dummies, dressed in suits, gathered in a communal bathroom. The three dummies each have thought bubbles located above their heads containing images of bodies. The dummy on the far left, positioned beside a toilet and staring out of the frame, on a diagonal, is accompanied by the backsides of four naked women, standing close together, shown in black and white. The dummy at the center, positioned as if walking away from the urinal beside him, is shown with a bubble featuring the naked buttocks of a tanned and muscular man with his hands on his hips. The bubble on the far right, showing three muscular women in a circle, naked with long hair whipping around them, is above a dummy that has turned away from a sink and mirror and toward the viewer.
Simmons' interest in ventriloquist dummies, sprang from childhood memories of ventriloquism shows on television in the 1950s, had been developing throughout the 1980s, when she spent time at the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky, home to a large collection of these figures. Café of the Inner Mind is a culmination of Simmons' earlier explorations.
In using these dummies, Simmons' encourages the viewer to consider the relationship between ventriloquism and masculinity, considering the ways in which these dummies allow men to speak through surrogates, evading responsibility, and the myriad of male relationships, paternal and fraternal, homosocial and homosexual, that are provoked by partnerships between vent and dummy. Simmons had seven identical dummies, including those used in this photograph, created to match those she remembered from her youth, and designed sets of clothing with subtle variations, evoking issues of conformity and individual identity that are negotiated through choices relating to dress. In matching the dummies with images, rather than words, Simmons' work subtly alludes to her own subversion of this relationship, with the visual artist herself acting as the dummy's vent, providing clichéd images of male fantasy, taken from pornographic magazines, that draw the audience to consider the ways in which, historically, the sexual fantasies of women have been constructed and policed by the male imagination.
Cibachrome print - Private collection
Room Underneath (Red)
Room Underneath (Red) shows the lower half of a seated woman's body. The woman's knees are bent and her feet, clad in black ballet slippers, are positioned apart from one another; her pink and white skirts, lined and embroidered with a decorative border, fall around her body and rest just below her knees. This position allows the viewer to see beneath her dress and the angle of the camera, between her legs at the level of the calves, shows a small domestic interior, with an arrangement of table, rug and red leather sofa and armchair beneath a painting with a gilded frame at the center of the room, the center of the woman's body and the center of the photograph itself.
This image challenges the association of femininity with the domestic realm, taking this link to a logical extreme by replacing the structure of the house with the body and clothing of a woman. The placement of the red interior between the legs of a woman, spread as they would be in sexual intercourse or in childbirth, suggests links between female sexuality, reproduction and the home, with the dramatic lighting and outsized scale of the woman emphasizing female power and creating a sense of threat. Room Underneath (Red) can be linked to Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde (1866), a famously-shocking Realist painting centered on a woman's abdomen and genitals, clearly visible between splayed legs. The subtly elevated skirt, showing the room only to the camera, plays with the audience's expectations, raising questions as to whether it is the body or societal constructs that are shocking.
Duraflex print - Baldwin Gallery
The Love Doll/Day 30 (Meeting)
This photograph shows two female dolls in a light-filled living room, one of whom sits on a white couch and the other of whom stands, facing toward the camera, with her hand on the back of the couch. The floors are wooden and the dolls are surrounded by a number of objects, including blue and white vases in the foreground, black and white cushions on the couch and large cylindrical lamps beside a window in the background. The seated doll is modelled after a Caucasian woman, with wavy brown hair, while the standing doll is modelled after an Asian woman and has black hair with a fringe across her forehead. Both women wear cream-colored silk slips and both look toward, though not at, the camera, their eyes angled downward.
The dolls that Simmons used in this image were sold as lifelike, and life-size, sex toys. Simmons first encountered them on a trip to Japan, purchasing one and ordering another several months later. Simmons used her own house, in Cornwall, NY, almost as a life-size doll's house for this project, taking hundreds of photographs of the dolls in various domestic settings. The Love Doll/Day 30 (Meeting) does not focus on the dolls as sex objects, but depicts them as multi-faceted; their positioning, suggestive of a film still, suggests a narrative that remains inaccessible to the viewer, while their facial expressions, with their eyes fixed on the floor, suggest that the dolls are deep in thought, psychologically unavailable to the viewer. At the same time, however, Simmons does not hide the sexual purpose of these dolls, with the nipples and crotch of the doll in the foreground clearly visible though the thin fabric of the dress. In this, the dolls come to seem like real women, performing a role as they go about everyday life; their place in society is constructed by erotic desires, but the viewer is given a sense of the ways in which this practice of viewing the female body strips women of agency and inner life. This sense of symmetry is heightened by the way Simmons displays the photographs; the images are printed at a large scale, so that the dolls retain their human stature.
Pigmented inkjet print - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Brunette / Red Dress / Standing Corner
This photograph shows a female figure, with the head of a doll, featuring large, cartoon-like eyes and small eyebrows, ears and mouth, standing close to the corner of the room, framed in the centre of the image. The figure has long, straight hair, parted in the middle and brown, and is dressed entirely in red latex, which has been fashioned into a sleeveless minidress, a pair of gloves and thigh-high boots. Her arms reach diagonally backward, her hands touching the walls, which are pale blue with a decorative frieze running across the corner at the level of the figure's chest. There are blue valence curtains at the tops of two windows, only one of which is visible, cropped by the right side of the frame, and the carpet at the base of the figure is grey and textured; the aesthetic mimics that of a dollhouse and the scale of the doll and environment is not immediately clear.
This image can be seen as an extension of Simmons' curiosity about the use of dolls by adults within particular subcultures and a further exploration of what life-size dolls reveal about humanity. The figure in this image initially appears as a doll, but the name of the series from which it is taken, Kigurumi, Dollers, reveals that it is a person wearing a doll's head, drawn from the tradition of kigurumi, in which participants engage in role-play while wearing masks or costumes, sometimes going out in public whilst in character. In Brunette / Red Dress / Standing Corner, it is difficult to discern whether the figure is doll or human and the individual's identity is subsumed by that of the costume, suggesting the wearer, rather than performing, comes to inhabit the persona built through their attire, challenging the idea of a real, rather than visually constructed, self. Simmons designed the masks for the figures she photographed in this series, but allowed the personalities to develop based on the models that shed used; the large eyes, accentuated by the degree to which the chin is held toward the chest, and the hands that reach for the walls emphasise the figure's fragility and vulnerability, while the latex hints at a sexual identity aligned with the fetish community, but it is unclear to the viewer whether it is the personality of the doll, the unknown model or something constructed by the photographer herself that is being recorded in the shot, heightening the sense of slippage in identity that is made possible by the conventions of the subculture.
Pigmented inkjet print - private collection