What do we See?
Lorna Simpson – Baltic 21st March - 22nd June 2014
Review by Alexandra Moschovi
Issue 79 Summer 2014
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"I could hear the voices of a couple arguing in the distance. It sounds as though they have entered the arcade, but only their voices have entered, and linger for a while even after they have passed the opening and continue on their way... It seems as though even if they had walked through they would not have noticed the presence of anyone, let alone anyone having sex...", The Car, text panel (1995).
This caption details the memory of a sexual encounter taking place in public in the privacy of a parked car. However, the presences implied in the text are absent from the black-and-white photographic image it anchors: a mundane people-less scene featuring a lone car parked under a vaulted arcade. Part of the series Public Sex, Lorna Simpson’s work The Car is a screen print on twelve felt panels pinned against the wall in grid format. On close inspection the picture disintegrates onto the felt surface whilst it recomposes itself from a distance. It seems as if the tactility of the flesh suggested in the spoken but unseen intimation, also a focal feature in Simpson’s earlier work, has been transposed onto the sensory experience of the woolly surface of the felt. The Car is the opening picture that greets the visitor to Simpson’s retrospective exhibition; an apt selection, for it establishes the central role of the beholder/voyeur in Simpson’s work while also preparing us for the shifts and turns in the artist’s multidimensional oeuvre.
Behind the dark grey wall where The Car hangs, is a mosaic of Simpson’s older and new work. Joan Simon’s curatorial selections and arrangements, overseen by the artist, place landmark works from different periods and media in dialogue with one another. Some of Simpson’s iconic early photo-text works, which brought her to critical acclaim in the 1980s, are presented together as a thematic cluster. 20 Questions: A Sample (1986), Five Days Forecast (1988), Stereo Styles (1988), Gestures/Reenactments (1985) and Waterbearer (1986) deal with race and gender stereotypes associated with the African American female (and occasionally male). In these constructed images, the body is shown faceless and is multiplied over a series of frames that interrupt the seamless reading of the photograph. There are also captions attached to the pictures – prose fiction or just single words – that expand what the photographs mean and question our preconceptions of beauty, sexuality, gender, and class.
This preoccupation with the politics of identity and representation informs Simpson’s subsequent work as well, from Wigs II (1994-2006), a series of disembodied wigs and text, to more recent work such as her re-staging of vintage glamour photographs bought on Ebay in 1957-2009 (2009) and the mixed-media installation of found photo-booth photographs To My Best Friend (2013). The selection of works showcased at the Baltic illustrates how Simpson turned towards different forms of materiality and media, as images rematerialised into fragments on felt panels or dematerialised as video projections. Such a shift is also indicative of wider shifts in art in the 1990s and the transition from medium-specific photography to the intermedia ‘photographic’.
Cloudscape (2004) is a three-minute looped video picturing the artist and musician Terry Adkins standing in a middle of a room whistling a slave hymn while fog gradually surrounds him until he vanishes. When the man stops whistling the video sequence is played in reverse and the melody is deconstructed, as are, symbolically, our sense of time and historical memory. The repeated sound of whistling is distinctly audible throughout Baltic’s third floor. Meanwhile, Cloud (2005), a multi-panel screen print that shares a similar setting to Cloudscape but without the whistler, appears as a conceptual rebus at the entrance of the gallery on the fourth floor where the exhibition continues.
Memory is the overarching theme in this gallery with the centrepiece being the two-screen film piece Momentum (2010). Ballet dancers in gold costumes, afro wigs and body paint recreate the artist’s actual experience of performing in similar attire aged eleven at a ballet recital at Lincoln Centre. The thudding sound of the ballet slippers on the harlequin floor as the dancers pirouette and dance mingles with that of the visitors’ footsteps on the gallery’s wooden floor. This echo complements acoustically the viewing of the related felt works Day Time, Day Time (Gold) and Chantellier (2011), which depict exterior and interior views of the Lincoln Centre, and Gold Head (2013), her recent drawings with ink and embossing powder on paper inspired by the dancers in Momentum.
This show also highlights a departure in Simpson’s work. In her previous use of photography and the found object the artist’s hand is not always evident. This contrasts with her recent work, whether in the painterly gesture present in Gold Head and the watercolour hairdos in Ebony Collages (2013) shown on opposite walls, or her very presence in her performance as the female and male chess players in the specifically commissioned work Chess (2013). Based on Simpson’s reenactment of the vintage photographs of 1957-2009, Chess is filmed by using a trompe l’oeil technique of multiple mirrors that present the gradually aging players on adjacent screens competing against their own multiplied reflection. On the opposite screen, the musician Jason Moran and his multiple selves rehearse the piece he synthesised for the work. Simpson blatantly tells us that what we see is but a subjective construct, an illusion and reflection of our own convictions.
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