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Collections> Browse Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson
Holdings (8)
3 multiples, 3 photographs, 1 edition prints/proof, 1 videotapes/videodisc

Wikipedia About Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson (born 1960) is an African American artist and photographer who made her name in the 1980s and 1990s with artworks such as Guarded Conditions and Square Deal. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Lorna Simpson, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Brooklyn-based artist Lorna Simpson is best known for provocative photographic works that address issues ranging from racial and sexual identity to conceptions of the body to interpersonal communication and relationships. Trained at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, she received her MA in 1985 from the University of California, San Diego, where she studied film and fine arts. She began her career as a documentary photographer but soon found herself more interested in investigating the role of the viewer. Part of a larger movement of feminist-inspired conceptual artists in the 1980s, including Cindy Sherman, Adrian Piper, and Barbara Kruger, who were concerned with the way a photograph is “read,” Simpson began in the mid-1980s to create compositions pairing minimalist black-and-white images with short texts. Presented with cool detachment and sometimes caustic humor, her images were often grouped to create large-scale tableaux of visual fragments—the human figure, objects, and words—that coalesced into quietly confrontational narratives.

Simpson came of age in the late 1970s, and acknowledges that the feminist movement—particularly her exposure to black feminism—was intrinsic to the shaping of her work.1 Her earliest photographs pictured an African American female model in a simple dress, frequently photographed in partial view or from behind. In presenting an anonymous subject coupled with disparate objects and words bearing cultural, social, or metaphoric weight, Simpson challenged the viewer to interpret meaning through personal experience. Queensize, a work from 1991, consists of three parts. The top image depicts the back of an African mask against a rich field of black. A second photograph portrays an African American female figure, clothed in a dark dress and shown from the waist down, the curve of her hip emerging from the shadows as her hands rest upon it. The diptych is joined by a wall-mounted plastic plaque—like those labeling the doors of corporate offices—engraved with the italicized word Queensize. The juxtaposition of the images and text, each part occupying a discrete visual space, creates a fractured yet powerful narrative surrounding notions of black feminine beauty.

In the mid-1990s, Simpson began creating works in which photographic imagery and text were printed on dense felt. The prints in the multipart Wigs (portfolio) (1994) were made by transferring twenty-one photographic images to felt panels using waterless lithography.2 The edition marks a period when Simpson was interested in eliminating the figure in favor of objects that could “indicate the body rather than actually using the body itself.”3 Hair and its cultural indicators had occupied a central place in her work since 1988. Wigs (portfolio) presents a taxonomy of hairstyles in varying lengths, shapes, and textures that signify differences of race, gender, and age, while emphasizing the wig as a masquerading device. The images are juxtaposed with texts, such as “the wig produced the desired effect” and “first impressions are the most lasting,” that underscore the unstable nature of social identities and question cultural assumptions associated with appearance.4

Simpson’s early concentration on the figure evolved in the late 1990s into an interest in working with physical space and recognizable human characters, a shift that led her to explore narrative film. Her lush black-and-white films are often manifest as dual or multiple projections, and are intended to be screened in a darkened room within a gallery context. Just as her multi-image photographic tableaux are “built,” so too are the film composites, weaving images and dialogue into compelling, open-ended scenarios. Stylistically, the sense of mystery, intrigue, and romance in these works nods to film noir; Simpson’s focus on details and objects recalls the classics of Alfred Hitchcock, whom she acknowledges as a strong influence, though the contemporary subject matter is very much her own.5

The Walker Art Center invited Simpson to make Recollection (1998), her third film, as an artist-in-residence from 1997 to 1998. Shot in the Twin Cities, the project presents what the artist has called a “disjointed, linear narrative” that focuses on characters who attempt to reconstruct past events through memory.6 In this single-projection installation, she employs a film-within-a-film device, calling into question the parts that are “real” and those that are fictitious. One scene presents two women in a movie theater speaking in hushed tones as they try to recall the details of a crime, their memories triggered by images they see on-screen. Several scenes involve telephone conversations ranging from a lovers’ quarrel to a case of mistaken identity. By layering snippets of dialogue, evocative vignettes, and enigmatic characters, the artist suggests that memory is at best selective. The experience of viewing Simpson’s films is one of tension; the verbal and visual cues she presents are challenging—at times disturbing—yet we remain drawn to the evocative power of her moving images.

  1. Lorna Simpson, telephone interview with the author and Sarah Cook (former Walker Visual Arts intern), March 9, 1999 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  2. The felt in Simpson’s wall works is a variety commonly used to cushion the beds of printing presses. Thematically, her choice of felt for this piece is particularly apt: this material, traditionally used for clothing and hats, is produced through an industrial process that combines animal hair and water.

  3. Simpson, interview with Engberg and Cook.

  4. The texts in Wigs (portfolio) are a combination of aphorisms, bits of dialogue, and narratives. One text is an excerpt from the slave narrative of William Craft, which describes his plan for escaping to freedom by having his wife masquerade as his white master.

  5. Simpson also acknowledges a stylistic debt to Constantin Costa-Gavras, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Simpson, interview with Engberg and Cook.

  6. Ibid.

Engberg, Siri. “Lorna Simpson.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center