Lorna Simpson has been a trailblazing representative of gender politics, identity, and critiques of modern day racism through photography and film since the 1980s. Much of her work, such as ‘Guarded Conditions‘ (1989) and ‘Square Deal‘ (1990) are touchstones for discussing the female African-American experience. Her work is the little-mentioned narrative of black bodies in America. Her notoriety is due in part to her ability to expose how the history of mistreatment towards blacks is still a cause for tension. What many people try to ignore, Simpson makes impossible to look away from. She earned her BFA from The School of Visual Arts in 1983 and an MFA from the University of California, San Diego in 1985. The breadth of her work spans such various media as photography, film, silk screening, and two-dimensional photography. She experiments with these artistic outlets to portray modern treatment of minorities, how they are characterized through media, and institutional racism.
Inspired by multiculturalism and dedicated to exposing the subtle racism alive in American society, Simpson began as a street photographer in New York City. Her trademark during this time was her ability to capture seemingly simple images, usually of black men and women, alongside series of text that transformed the initial message into a much darker and representative message of the widespread repression against African-Americans, even in a social climate that claims to embrace all cultures. Her 1989 piece ‘Necklines‘ shows two identical images of a black woman from the mouth down, cut off about mid-chest. The images are beautiful yet simple on their own; however, the words ‘ring, surround, lasso, noose, eye, areola, halo, cuffs, collar, loop’ are listed in between the two images, changing our perspective on the meaning behind the photographs. What was at first glance an interesting portrait of a woman becomes much more urgent with the additional text. The piece displays the complexities inherent in the experiences of all African-Americans, making us recognize that the lives of black people are continuously shaped by how society has regarded them throughout history.
These earlier works of photography, in tandem with text, garnered much attention for Simpson and the issues she sought to expose through her unique lens. She soon began experimenting with video as a means through which to relate her ideas, which escalated her notoriety and led to eagerness among institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney to exhibit her work.
‘Call Waiting‘ (1997) is a superb representation of Simpson’s adeptness at playing with race and relationships through cinematic depiction. ‘Call Waiting’ portrays a series of phone calls between several different people of varying ethnicities, discussing their romantic lives and dilemmas. We receive snap-shots of these conversations, and though we think we know who is talking to whom at what time, we can never be sure. The work does not disclose which pieces of conversation match up with other fragments. By the end, we are confronted with a host of different characters that we realize are all connected.
Simpson’s approach to video usually involves a larger installation component, such as ‘Interior/Exterior‘ (1997), which includes seven film projections screened at once on three different walls. The context is similar to ‘Call Waiting’ in that we are shown a host of characters moving in and out of each other’s lives and personal storylines; however, we are left wondering what the exact connection is between them.
Although Simpson’s pieces are most obviously about race and gender politics, she has described other, less apparent themes that influence her work: ‘The subject that I reach towards most often is memory.’ We see memory and interwoven experience in much of her film pieces, especially the aforementioned ‘Call Waiting’ and ‘Interior/Exterior.’ Though her photographic representations are stark and manifest our emotions instantly, her experimentation with film comes across more subdued and plays with the theme of memory as a catalyst for discussing how we navigate a multicultural society. Overall, Simpson declares that ‘beyond the subject matter the common thread is my relationship to text and to ideas around representation.’ Text and narrative are Simpson’s media that shape perspective, whether through photographic or cinematic work.
Much has been said about Simpson’s use of text as standalone poetry. She’s been praised for her adeptness at utilizing language and transforming meaning. Many regard her use of words alongside her artwork a look at Lorna Simpson the poet. Her relationship to her work is also often speculated about, particularly whether any of it is autobiographical. Simpson claims that it is not. Certain pieces are often misconstrued as representative of more personal expression from Simpson, but she has always attested to a much more observatory role in her work. Although there are no current exhibitions running of her work, The Studio Museum in Harlem has a permanent exhibit of Simpson’s piece ‘15 Mouths‘ (2002) in New York City.
By Bridget Kiley