Lorna Simpson's mid-career survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (2006) dazzles and disappoints in equal parts. The traveling show, composed of work from the last twenty years of Simpson's practice, largely consists of photographic image/text pieces and video work accompanied by stills. The driving conceptual force behind the work is the intersection of subjectivity as filtered through the black American experience with its particular issues of representation. Simpson engages these issues with varying success, and the show, mirroring this, moves from the emotionally and conceptually potent in pieces like The Park (1995) and Easy to Remember (2001), to the philosophically obvious and formulaic in work such asUntitled (guess who's coming to dinner) (2001) and Corridor (2003).
Lorna Simpson, Easy to Remember, 2001, 16mm black-and-white film transferred to DVD, 2:35 min looped. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery
A review of Lorna Simpson's retrospective would be remiss in not mentioning her iconic images of headless anti-portraits of black men and women with their (often cryptic, and sometimes repetitive) accompanying text. These quiet, minimalist pieces manage to comment upon and commodify the experience of black American women by draining them of any identity. Simpson's mannered approach to representation and figuration, specifically in relation to black identity, creates iconic images. But where they succeed in iconography, they fail in nuance; their cold attempts at sublimity stiffen on the wall.
The best of the photo/text pieces manages to subtly allude to layered narratives and nuances of observation and perception. The Park, a large six-panel serigraph on felt, presents a night view of New York's Central Park seen from above, with an edge of buildings looking down upon it, a sweeping urban landscape that captures the simple beauty of the view while flagging the sinister or transgressive activities that may occur within its darkness. One text piece, resembling a shorthand diary entry, tells the brief story of unpacking a telescope and pointing at the park to see a lone man watching 'figures from across the paths'. The other text, to the right of the six-panel park scene, outlines the mission of a sociologist studying the 'private acts in the men's public bathrooms', adopting the role of voyeur 'in order to go noticed and unnoticed at the same time'. The sociologist records the activities of the men who frequent the public bathrooms, as well as their license plates 'when applicable for later'. This piece functions in breathtaking layers of observation, concealment, participation, and sexuality. It presents the ethical dilemmas and ambiguities when the public and private bleed into one another. And although no figures are readily perceptible, none of the actors is allowed true anonymity. Even the viewer is implicated, a voyeur to the intrigues alluded to in the text.
In contrast, the most ineffective of the photo/text works, Untitled (guess who's coming to dinner), part of a series of similar pieces, has the same elegant, mannered aesthetic delivery that's characteristic of Simpson's work with none of the subtlety that makes a piece like The Park so engaging. Forty-two three-quarter back cameo photos of a young black woman are unevenly displayed and cut out of milky, semi-transparent Plexiglas. These cameos are juxtaposed with the vinyl lettering on its surface enumerating the titles of black and blaxploitation films in alphabetical order starting with 'guess who's coming to dinner' and ending with 'sweet jesus preacher man' (both titles as they appear in the piece). This juxtaposition comes off as a sophomoric gesture taking obvious (and lifeless) notions of identity and placing them side-by-side for effect,
A similarly weak comparison is made in Corridor, a double projection video installation of the two women on both screens enacting the mundane motions of everyday life, one in 1860 and the other in 1960. The women (played by the same actor) do their toilette, communicate in their respective historical modes (hand-writing and telephone), and look contemplatively off into space. And although I appreciate Ms. Simpson's attempts to respond, it fails to make any substantive political critique. In other words, her recording of the mundane activities of two black women in pivotal moments of African-American history is, well, mundane. And although there is doubtlessly some political statement beyond neat clichés on the surface, I neither know nor care to pierce these superficial tropes to find out.
Overall, Lorna Simpson's aesthetic practice is pleasingly tranquil and composed, but these measured pieces only succeed politically when they connect to the uneasy ambiguities of real human experience, and fail when they only gesture towards those ambiguities with pretty and cryptic language lacking true critical engagement. The self-consciously poetic text only serves as a mask to the easy platitudes that may have seemed sexy in the halcyon days of multiculturalism, but now come off as tinny.
But whereas certain pieces hit false notes, the unified humming of a video piece like Easy to Remember is in contrast deeply moving and distinctly human. Easy to Remember manages to celebrate the individual differences of its subjects with tonal variation from the fifteen sets of highly different isolated sets of black lips, while still acting in aural and aesthetic unity. This piece accomplishes wholly what is dealt with varying success throughout the retrospective, in turn throughout her career, which is the aesthetic unity of the individual and the universal, through the filter of black American experience. The unequivocal success of this piece redeems any other misgivings or failures found in the other work. And it in fact, (almost) justifies the necessity and importance of this retrospective to the current social, political and artistic conversation surrounding the show.
- Andrew Berardini