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Lorna Simpson Photo

Lorna Simpson

American Photographer, Video, and Installation Artist

Born: August 13, 1960 - Brooklyn, NY
"It is about race and being African American, but it's also about gender - and there are just so many women who either should be given more credit or have more vibrant careers for having paved the way. It's a little bittersweet. Things should be better. But then, that's just where we are."
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Lorna Simpson
"A photograph is worth a thousand words, but then it can be very specific or open-ended, without leaving it completely open to interpretation - just a little bit of a narrative in a particular direction."
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Lorna Simpson
"When you make a work and that work becomes embraced, regardless of who it's embraced by, and it's used intellectually to support a particular agenda, it provokes a level of discomfort."
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Lorna Simpson
"In terms of making art, and writing, and anything that we do as artists where we have to step up to the plate, it should be uncomfortable, it should be nerve wracking, and there should be this level of the unknown."
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Lorna Simpson
"Real is a contentious word. What can be considered real and or verified does not necessarily mean that it is recognized or acknowledged on a micro or macro level. There are many different ways to interrogate or locate a subject. One should take into account the lens by which we think of the idea of a subject."
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Lorna Simpson
"I focus on details, either of the body, or of objects that represent gender, sexuality, and other themes."
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Lorna Simpson
"The construction of femininity is a construction, yes, but also it can be twisted and turned around in such a way that doesn't necessarily mean it is pointing to the female body or male body in such a binary fashion. The culture is already there and has always been, but not as equal citizens. I think there is more progress to come."
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Lorna Simpson
"In my work, there's mechanism that is 'real,' which is formed from the historical concepts of the images that I'm working with. That doesn't fall completely into a cliché. There are elements about it that carry historical context and edges."
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Lorna Simpson
"Reading about feminism when I was a teenager and seeing it as a young woman, I realized that feminism really hadn't dealt with sexuality; it really hadn't dealt with transgender or gay women."
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Lorna Simpson
"I started to concentrate more upon how the viewer looks at photographs... I would insert my own text or my own specific reading of the image to give the viewer something they might not interpret or surmise, due to their educated way of looking at images, and reading them for their emotional, psychological, and/or sociological values. So, I would start to interject these things that the photograph would not speak of and that I felt needed to be revealed, but that couldn't be revealed from just looking at an image."
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Lorna Simpson
"Generally, the imagery and the text go hand in hand. It's much easier when the text comes first, but sometimes I need visual stimulation in order to find the words. I get an idea of what I want when I begin to shoot, and the text is usually the last thing to be resolved. I tend to leave the text open, and I refine the words up to the last minute. As for the image, I can resolve that and get that done fairly quickly."
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Lorna Simpson
"My earlier works from the eighties and mid-nineties are very narrative based. But even more recently, the work has an undercurrent of the narrative of the archive, of found photographs, implied narratives, and fictions."
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Lorna Simpson
"All artists have different relationships to their work. But mine is out in the world, I barely hold on to it - I don't have an emotional attachment to it. It's something I have to move on from and do other things. At the same time, when I look back at the work I've done, it becomes a language for me. There is different visual iconic imagery or things that I can re-examine in different ways. It's quite multifaceted and beautiful."
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Lorna Simpson
"Working in film and video is a high for me. As a process, it's like jet fuel."
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Lorna Simpson
"If you are not Native American and your people haven't been here for centuries before the settlement of America, then those experiences have to be regarded as valuable, and we have to acknowledge each other. This is the premise by which I view the world."
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Lorna Simpson

Summary of Lorna Simpson

As an African American woman growing up in the United States, Lorna Simpson has kept her artistic gaze fixated on investigating the complex and convoluted permutations of what her particular identity ingrained upon her personal psyche and the communal consciousness of a nation bred on systemic racism. With a pioneering approach to conceptual photography and film, pairing images with narrative bits of text, she asks us to see beyond face value into the deeper layers of what it means to be a Black female, utilizing both her own memories and our shared history to make poignant remarks about the nature, power, and problems of representation. Above all, Simpson compels others to examine how they confront imagery and representation in their own lives. She asks us to view a picture beyond face value and removed from education, to probe further into its emotional, psychological, and sociological values.

Her interrogations into race and gender issues further a long lineage of artists who investigate the political and critique the societal in efforts to highlight and evolve our unconscious, or conscious, human shadows.

Accomplishments

  • Collage based on portraiture, tableau, and repetition are common motifs in Simpson's work; the use of these traditional artistic techniques become co-opted and subverted in her hands as a way to emphasize the ages-old objectification of Black bodies.
  • By juxtaposing language with imagery, Simpson's work contributes to "intertextuality" -a mode that relies on the artist's coupling of each in ways that spark the viewer to reconsider their original perceptions of what a picture or a word means. In her oeuvre, this technique is often employed to re-evaluate the past.
  • Simpson has been connected to the Post-Blackness movement, in which artists strove to intentionally make work seen through their own particular life lens, which broke out of being pigeonholed as solely reminiscent of the universal Black experience. She accomplishes this by utilizing her personal memories to inform her art, even as her presentations of the Black female resonate deeply with the concerns and experiences of her female, Black sisters.

Biography of Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson Photo

Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Lorna Simpson was an only child to a Jamaican-Cuban father and an African-American mother. Her parents were left-leaning intellectuals who immersed their daughter in group gatherings and cultural events from a young age. She attributed their influence as the sole reason she became an artist, writing, "From a young age, I was immersed in the arts. I had parents who loved living in New York and loved going to museums, and attending plays, dance performances, concerts... my artistic interests have everything to do with the fact that they took me everywhere ...."



Progression of Art

1986

The Water Bearer

In this starkly lit, monochrome scene, a young woman dressed in white pours sparkling water from two vessels onto the ground below. Her identity is concealed from view, but we can discern from skin color and hairstyle that she is a Black woman, while her floating white gown lends her an ethereal, ghostly quality. One container is an old metal relic while the other is plastic; these conflicting references collapse together past and present into one.

The ambiguous passage of text below the image, "She saw him disappear by the river, they asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory," is taken from a longer passage by the poet Phillis Wheatley, a former slave and the first Black woman to publish a book in America. Removed from a wider context it has a strange ambiguity here, hinting at a disturbing narrative involving a missing man, but also points towards the isolation of this female character, who tries to speak what Simpson calls "her truth," only to be disregarded and ignored. Art critic Holland Cotter observes of this enigmatic character in the New York Times, "Even when she is willing to share herself, it turns out, she is devalued."

Simpson made this work early in her career as a photographer, when she was experimenting with how the juxtaposition of image and text could invest greater emotional, narrative, or political meaning into an image, echoing the charged textual art of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Later in the 1980s, Simpson focused increasingly on documentation of women, injecting loaded passages of text that open up discussion on issues around discrimination and marginalization.

Simpson often deliberately photographed women from behind in these early career photographs to highlight the horrific dehumanizing objectification of racism, echoed by the strange clinical gowns that adorned all her characters. But Cotter argues there is a certain liberation in leaving these women anonymous, arguing, "Because her face isn't visible, she retains a degree of control." Although Simpson's archetypal women in works such as these are mysterious and unknown, there is a suggestion that Simpson is replaying events from the past to suggest a better future going forward. Curator Joan Simon highlights this theatrical staging in Simpson's work arguing it is "built on the juxtaposition of gestures and re-enactments."

The abstract concept of memory and its personal intimacy hinted at in this work would come to play a more vital role in Simpson's later video work.

Gelatin Silver Print with Vinyl Lettering

1989

Guarded Conditions

In this chilling sequence of photographs six women are lined into a row with eerily similar appearances. But closer inspection reveals small differences between each person; some have their feet positioned differently, while in others their heads and torsos are misaligned, creating an uneasy dissonance. Beneath them the phrases SEX ATTACKS and SKIN ATTACKS are repeated with the same ordered precision as the images above, but the allusion to racist and sexist violence adds a deeper level of nervous tension to the artwork.

Simpson's repeat statements relate to the two-pronged attacks inflicted upon Black women, who are marginalized by both their gender and race. On the one hand, this dehumanizing group seen only from behind resembles what art historian Beryl Wright calls, "multiple situations of institutional repression and surveillance, such as slave auctions, hospital examination rooms and criminal line ups." But as with all Simpson's photographs, these women are given far greater complexity and respect; each woman has one hand clenched in furious defiance, while their long white gowns give them the spiritual aura of guardian angels, ready to stand up against acts of unwanted aggression.

By the late 1980s Simpson was earning international recognition for her biting commentaries on the ongoing racial conflicts in America. Her work during this period often broke apart women's bodies as seen here, alluding to the jarring violence inflicted upon Black women. Writer Sofia Retta argues, "Simpson's subtle fragmentation of the photographs speaks to the mutilation of Black women's bodies, from the wounds of beatings and sexual violence during slavery to the ongoing killings at the hands of police."

18 Color Polaroid Prints, 21 Engraved Plastic Plaques, and Plastic Letters - Museum of San Diego

1989

Necklines

Three images of the same woman bristle against one another, revealing different aspects of her neckline, with glimpses of lips and hair, while the rest of her identity is hidden. Below, a play on the word "neck" unravels, each term conjuring various situationist possibilities for the woman from competition to fear to romance to fashion. In descending order, the left box reads: necktie, neck & neck, neck-ed, and neckless while the right reads: necking, neckline, necklace, and breakneck. The serrated edge of her white t-shirt hints at underlying violence, a sentiment echoed in the jarring inclusion of the words "neckless" and "breakneck."

During this time, Simpson made a series of images like this one, exploring Black women's necks arranged into disjointed views. Seen without the words, these images could be read as ambiguous portraits of a mysterious woman, but Simpson demonstrates how even the most seemingly simple additions of language can entirely alter our perception of an image, conjuring up the vast complexity of our history. Highlighting fragile women's necks allowed Simpson to push forward into the horrifying territory of America's past, when lynching was common practice, forcing us to look at issues that have so often been brushed under the carpet. This direct confrontation of America's dark history has had a profound impact on artists since, particularly African-American artist Kara Walker, who similarly forces viewers to walk directly into the horrors of the past.

Along with the overt reference to violence, undercurrents of female strength and authority are also suggested by the woman's defiant stance and closed, set lips. Paper magazine described this visual complexity as a "striking commentary on Black female sexuality, lynching, and ideas of supremacist propriety."

Gelatin Silver Prints and Engraved Plexiglass Plaques - Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

1994

Wigs

A series of twenty-one wigs are laid out in a haphazard grid formation, arranged like scientific artifacts in a museum display. Each illustrates a different hairstyle, including Afros and braided hair, alongside blonde, wavy tresses and even wigs for dolls. Simpson printed these images onto panels of white felt, a soft material which itself has a hair-like quality. Alongside these images a series of short, cryptic statements are interspersed, each telling anecdotes relating to various themes including slavery, drag, celebrity, and the stereotypical perceptions we cultivate toward others. For example, one story relates how a slave couple were able to escape by having the lighter skinned wife pretend that her darker skinned husband was her own slave. Even though she couldn't read, she had memorized the mannerisms of her arrogant owners and was able to bypass trouble along the way due to her gestures that mimicked this white arrogance.

This artwork delves into the history of African-American hairstyles, revealing how varied they have been through the ages. Laying them out in this way allows Simpson to highlight just how politicized hair can be; the blonde wig alludes to the oppressive pressures on Black women to change their natural appearance, while the Afro styles could be read as an empowered act of defiance in embracing one's true essence.

On the one hand, Simpson's works such as this can inevitably be read as a commentary on the issues around African-American culture and the pressures to conform, but the broader themes around inclusion and self-acceptance are universal ones to which we can all relate. Likening her practice to the Post-Blackness work of artist Glenn Ligon and writer Thelma Golden, in which artists want to move beyond being understood solely for the color of their skin, Simpson argues, "For me, the specter of race looms so large because this is a culture where using the Black figure takes on very particular meanings, even stereotypes. But, if I were a white artist using Caucasian models, then the work would be read as completely universalist."

Lithographs on Felt - MoMA, New York

2012

A Friend

A young, bright-eyed woman looks out with hopeful optimism, while her hair sweeps upwards high into the sky to form a dreamy swirl of iridescent blue light. Black and white photographic material is combined here with the loose, aqueous language of watercolor, lending it a dramatic, theatrical flourish.

In the 1990s Simpson first began making collages with material sourced from her grandmother's vintage collection of African-American Magazines from the 1950s including Jet and Ebony; the advertisements aimed at women fascinated her, particularly the pressures on women to conform to the Caucasian American ideal with skin lighteners or hair relaxants. Since 2011 Simpson has been adding painterly passages to these collages, transforming her protagonists with fantastical, bouffant hairstyles that defy logic and gravity. Much like her earlier artwork Wigs, Simpson explores the political implications tied up in hair with this series, suggesting the act of letting their natural hair go wild as an act of liberation for Black or African-American women.

Poet, scholar, and author Elizabeth Alexander sees Simpson's treatment to these women as a powerful form of emancipation, observing, "In Lorna Simpson's collages ... hair is the universal governing principle. Black women's heads of hair are galaxies unto themselves, solar systems, moonscapes, volcanic interiors. The hair she paints has a mind of its own. It is sinuous and cloudy and fully alive. It is forest and ocean, its own emotional weather. Black women's hair is epistemology, but we cannot always discern its codes." Alexander also sees Simpson's choice of vividly toned, fluid paint as conceptually important, lending these women a sense of mystery, intrigue, and free-spirited independence that was impossible for them in the 1950s, noting, "Watercolor is the perfect medium for Simpson here because of how it holds light and appears to be translucent. But it is also a wash, a shadow cast over what we cannot know in these women."

More recently, African-America artist Ellen Gallagher has adopted a similar trope of reworking imagery from vintage African-American magazines, particularly in relation to Black hairstyles, adding a range of unconventional materials such as glitter, gold-leaf, coconut oil and plasticine to collages to elevate them beyond conditioned stereotypes into the whimsical and fantastical.

Watercolor and Collage on Paper

2010

Momentum

In this two-part, seven-minute long video, a striking group of golden dancers emerge, twirling and pirouetting in front of a stark white backdrop. Each figure wears an identical gold leotard and has gold spray-painted onto their skin and huge Afro wigs, making them difficult to distinguish from one another. As well as dancing, the figures are also filmed as they wait and prepare for their performance, while cuts and loops in the film create a disjointed, non-linear sequence.

Simpson drew inspiration for this video from a memory of her own performance at the Lincoln Center in New York when she was around 11 years old. Much like the performers seen here, Simpson was adorned in head-to-toe gold paint and performed a ballet routine with a group of others. But she found the experience painfully difficult, learning that she was better suited to be behind, rather than in front of the camera. She recalled how it was "like performing from a black hole - I knew immediately it was not for me."

Simpson replays this important coming of age moment in her early life to demonstrate its importance in discovering her sense of self. Although she does not appear in the film, the group of male and female dancers acts as a refracted metaphor for her past selves, while breaks and repetitive elements of the film re-enact the fragmentary nature of memory. Writer Thomas J. Lax notices how "In Momentum, Simpson transforms the memory of a bygone moment into a legible form." Much like her previous artworks, Simpson creates a series of repetitive archetypes in this video, while the golden skin color and gender fluidity of her dancers suggests a moment of transcendence beyond gender and race made possible through the power of art, a sentiment echoed in the work of various Post-Black artists including Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley, Mickaline Thomas and Kalup Linzy.

2-Channel Video Installation

2012

Chess

This video installation is composed of three adjacent projections; on one screen a man plays chess, on another a woman plays chess, while the third documents the musician Jason Moran playing the piano music he composed to accompany the work. Refracted views break apart each figure into five parts, creating the strange sensation of entering a hall of mirrors where nothing is as it seems. As the video unfolds, it becomes clear the chess players are in fact playing the game against themselves. The characters grow old as the story unravels, which Simpson calls "a dissolve that indicates the passage of time."

Chess is said to take influence from the five-fold composite portraits, or multigraphs, that were in fashionable in the 1890s. The technique, which Simpson called "a Surrealist trope of trick photography" had shown up in a famous self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp and a portrait of Francis Picabia taken by an anonymous photographer. Another source of inspiration for this film came from another image, sent to Simpson by the art historian Sarah Thornton, featuring what Simpson described as "a beautiful portrait of an unknown man of African descent in a white straw hat ..."

Made for a solo exhibition in 2013 at Jeu de Paume, Paris, Chess expands on ideas Simpson first developed for the photographic series 1957-2009, in which she re-enacted scenes taken from vintage photographs, dressing herself as both male and female characters. Both the photographic series and this film work were a new point of departure for Simpson in which she moved beyond issues around racial tensions into broader territory, questioning the fragmentary nature of identity and memory.

Ultimately the work takes on a strange ambiguity that mirrors the complexity of our identities in a fragmented society, when issues of race and gender are more complex and divided than ever before, mirroring the same language that has been explored by Adrian Piper since the 1960s. Curator and writer Joan Simon asks "In Simpson's project - in which one plays chess with oneself - how does one extract oneself from oneself to outwit oneself? Who wins? Technically it would end in a draw and or extend into a Borgesian infinity. How does one become one's own doppelganger?"

Three-channel Video Projection - Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

2018

Ice 4

Dark, angry clouds gather and swarm over an icy cold terrain, while vivid blue puffs below suggest mountains or freezing rocks. Combining monochrome, near photographic elements with painterly passages and shockingly bright color. This sublime image of devastating beauty echoes the formal language in Simpson's earlier watercolor collages of African-American women.

Landscapes are new territory for an artist who has focused on socio-political commentaries for much of her career. But much like her recent video installations, landscape paintings are a less overt means of addressing wider social concerns about life in contemporary America; Simpson compares these icy, inhospitable terrains to the current culture in America, which is still rife with discrimination, and segregation. Some of her landscape paintings also feature ghostly, African-American women's faces dissolving into her indistinct, mountainous blurs, emphasizing the hidden issues of racism that still haunt the American dream. She likens the plight of people like her to these frozen scenes, commenting, "There's something about ice that has come into the work that indicates either freezing or endurance."

Known predominantly as a photographer, painting is a radical new development in Simpson's practice, one which was not without its risks, as she explains, "At first I was a little intimidated about working in this way," she commented, adding, "It seemed a little absurd ... and then I thought ... you fail, you fail. So what?"

Ink and Acrylic on Gessoed Wood Panel


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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper

"Lorna Simpson Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
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First published on 19 Nov 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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