Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lorna Simpson @ Jeu de Paume

Lorna Simpson, Wigs II (1994/2006)

The exhibition could have been called “hair”. Again and again in Lorna Simpson’s photographs identity is determined, expressed, reflected through a representation of hair. It is true, hair is a complex signifier of who we are and, as I was reminded by the focus on hair in Simpson’s photographs, we don’t pay enough attention to all of its social, sexual, gender, racial meanings. In the entire wall covered by Wigs II, (1994/2006) 54 women’s wigs are photographed and printed on felt squares. They are given dimensionality, they cast shadows, are made whole and real. In each felt square, the style of the hair and the colour of the hair differs; it might be waxed, natural, coiffed, but always we recognize it as a black woman’s carefully groomed hair from behind. Everything about the person who does not appear in the image is characterized by the hair. We might also say that the identity of the owner of the wig is given to her by the world for and by which she is groomed. Something akin to the internalization of the fashion world’s demands as they are reflected in our own self-stylization might be at work in those described by the wigs. In a typical Simpson strategy, the wigs are accompanied by texts, at times on the image, at other times between two images, and still other times, relating to no image in particular. The texts echo sexuality, black sexuality in particular, as well as desires we assume to be created by and for the woman who owns the wig. One, for example, details an enslaved man’s plan to have his wife wear a wig in a subterfuge that would allow them both to escape to freedom. Thus, the power of a woman passing as a man, passing as white.
Lorna Simpson, Day Time, 2011
This series, together with images of both inside and outside Lincoln Centre reproduced from old photographs are photographs printed on felt. Immediately, the use of felt recall the work of Joseph Beuys who effectively canonized and colonized the fabric in his depictions of survival against all odds in Siberia. The connection thus invokes a discourse of memory, of survival of warmth and protection. Even though there is no felt in the decoration of Lincoln Centre, I can’t help thinking that the felt in Simpson’s installation is in keeping with the period of 1960s architecture of the building. As such, together with the 1960s colour reproduction of Simpson’s photographs, works such as Day Time, 2011 and Curtain, 2011 are imbued with a nostalgia. But of course, we wonder, a nostalgia for what?
Lorna Simpson, Five Day Forecast, 1988

Another indication of the works’ historical context is Simpson’s creative use of repetition. In a work such as Five Day Forecast (1988), the differences in the repetition of a black woman’s torso, her arms crossed, her head cut off, are so miniscule that we are impelled to study the photographs to find them. Faced with multiple repetitions of the image we cannot resist the temptation: we constantly look for the differences. Again, the text that accompanies the images is always different. The days of the week, one above each torso, are clear, each photograph being labelled with a day of the week. But then there are ten labels along the bottom that don’t ever correspond exactly to the photographs. They correspond neither in their placement, nor in their meaning. This inconsistency adds frustration to the viewing process – we are always trying to connect images and texts, as another automatic response to the work. But we never can. For me, the changing, somewhat free floating texts create different circumstances for each image, thus giving a kind of slipperiness to the identity – which is interesting, especially when we assume that Simpson’s goal is to comment on the fixity of the black woman’s identity.
Lorna Simpson, Chess, 2013
In Chess, 2013 the repetition is multiple. Simpson herself plays not only the five different figures on the screen, but she also plays five men on an adjacent screen. Similarly, each woman plays the moves of both black and white pieces on the board in front of her. While the women always make the move, the men mirror their moves on the other screen. The way the women hold their hands, arms crossed like those in Five Day Forecast is opposed to how the men hold theirs, on the table. Chess introduces an element of deception that seems new to Simpson’s work, a deception that is due to the medium and the multiple mirroring devices. There are five repetitions of each figure — five men and five women — and with so many figures, there’s always the anticipation that we will get a panoramic, complete view of the figure’s moves. However, repeatedly mirrored images reveals no more about the figure than the wig seen from the back. We never get the full image.
Lorna Simpson, Please Remind me of Who I am, 2008
Please Remind me of Who I Am, 2009 and Gather 2008 extend the concerns of isolation, memory and identity that pervade Simpson’s photographs into processes of collecting. There is a performance of the search for self in the repetition and obsession of collecting as we see a proliferation of photo booth photographs of African American women, each framed in their own individual brass frame. Identity is interesting in this series as well as in Gather: we wonder whose identity is at stake? Whose identity is being played out? Is identity exchangeable –by putting the images in the brass frames, Simpson shows the individuality of each person, each otherwise throwaway image, each identity. The intertwining of collective memory and individual memory is also raised and complicated in Gather, a photographic narrative in which Simpson re-stages the photographs of anonymous people she finds on ebay. They are black men and women, who perform their sexuality, their identity, their personalities she presumes for film auditions. The connection is created between the women in the images.

Lorna Simpson, Curtain, 2011
What I really love about Simpson’s work is its subtlety, its quiet but very powerful critique of image, of personality, of the way black women, and by extension, all women are presented to the world, how we self-construct according to how the world wants us to be. Simpson’s work is all about how gender is no more than a performance, an idea we already known, but an idea that is given a particularly intelligent and quiet but powerful depiction by Simpson. That makes her work extremely effective, and this small exhibition, important. 

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