Progression of Art
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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