Lorna Simpson

American Photographer, Video, and Installation Artist

Lorna Simpson Photo
Born: August 13, 1960
Brooklyn, NY
Main
It is about race and being African American, but it's also about gender - and there are just so many women who either should be given more credit or have more vibrant careers for having paved the way. It's a little bittersweet. Things should be better. But then, that's just where we are.
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A photograph is worth a thousand words, but then it can be very specific or open-ended, without leaving it completely open to interpretation - just a little bit of a narrative in a particular direction.
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When you make a work and that work becomes embraced, regardless of who it's embraced by, and it's used intellectually to support a particular agenda, it provokes a level of discomfort.
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In terms of making art, and writing, and anything that we do as artists where we have to step up to the plate, it should be uncomfortable, it should be nerve wracking, and there should be this level of the unknown.
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Real is a contentious word. What can be considered real and or verified does not necessarily mean that it is recognized or acknowledged on a micro or macro level. There are many different ways to interrogate or locate a subject. One should take into account the lens by which we think of the idea of a subject.
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I focus on details, either of the body, or of objects that represent gender, sexuality, and other themes.
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The construction of femininity is a construction, yes, but also it can be twisted and turned around in such a way that doesn't necessarily mean it is pointing to the female body or male body in such a binary fashion. The culture is already there and has always been, but not as equal citizens. I think there is more progress to come.
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In my work, there's mechanism that is 'real,' which is formed from the historical concepts of the images that I'm working with. That doesn't fall completely into a cliché. There are elements about it that carry historical context and edges.
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Reading about feminism when I was a teenager and seeing it as a young woman, I realized that feminism really hadn't dealt with sexuality; it really hadn't dealt with transgender or gay women.
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I started to concentrate more upon how the viewer looks at photographs... I would insert my own text or my own specific reading of the image to give the viewer something they might not interpret or surmise, due to their educated way of looking at images, and reading them for their emotional, psychological, and/or sociological values. So, I would start to interject these things that the photograph would not speak of and that I felt needed to be revealed, but that couldn't be revealed from just looking at an image.
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Generally, the imagery and the text go hand in hand. It's much easier when the text comes first, but sometimes I need visual stimulation in order to find the words. I get an idea of what I want when I begin to shoot, and the text is usually the last thing to be resolved. I tend to leave the text open, and I refine the words up to the last minute. As for the image, I can resolve that and get that done fairly quickly.
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My earlier works from the eighties and mid-nineties are very narrative based. But even more recently, the work has an undercurrent of the narrative of the archive, of found photographs, implied narratives, and fictions.
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All artists have different relationships to their work. But mine is out in the world, I barely hold on to it - I don't have an emotional attachment to it. It's something I have to move on from and do other things. At the same time, when I look back at the work I've done, it becomes a language for me. There is different visual iconic imagery or things that I can re-examine in different ways. It's quite multifaceted and beautiful.
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Working in film and video is a high for me. As a process, it's like jet fuel.
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If you are not Native American and your people haven't been here for centuries before the settlement of America, then those experiences have to be regarded as valuable, and we have to acknowledge each other. This is the premise by which I view the world.
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Summary of Lorna Simpson

As an African American woman growing up in the United States, Lorna Simpson has kept her artistic gaze fixated on investigating the complex and convoluted permutations of what her particular identity ingrained upon her personal psyche and the communal consciousness of a nation bred on systemic racism. With a pioneering approach to conceptual photography and film, pairing images with narrative bits of text, she asks us to see beyond face value into the deeper layers of what it means to be a Black female, utilizing both her own memories and our shared history to make poignant remarks about the nature, power, and problems of representation. Above all, Simpson compels others to examine how they confront imagery and representation in their own lives. She asks us to view a picture beyond face value and removed from education, to probe further into its emotional, psychological, and sociological values.

Her interrogations into race and gender issues further a long lineage of artists who investigate the political and critique the societal in efforts to highlight and evolve our unconscious, or conscious, human shadows.

Accomplishments

Biography of Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson Photo

Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Lorna Simpson was an only child to a Jamaican-Cuban father and an African-American mother. Her parents were left-leaning intellectuals who immersed their daughter in group gatherings and cultural events from a young age. She attributed their influence as the sole reason she became an artist, writing, "From a young age, I was immersed in the arts. I had parents who loved living in New York and loved going to museums, and attending plays, dance performances, concerts... my artistic interests have everything to do with the fact that they took me everywhere ...."

Important Art by Lorna Simpson

The Water Bearer (1986)

The Water Bearer (1986)

In this starkly lit, monochrome scene, a young woman dressed in white pours sparkling water from two vessels onto the ground below. Her identity is concealed from view, but we can discern from skin color and hairstyle that she is a Black woman, while her floating white gown lends her an ethereal, ghostly quality. One container is an old metal relic while the other is plastic; these conflicting references collapse together past and present into one.

The ambiguous passage of text below the image, "She saw him disappear by the river, they asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory," is taken from a longer passage by the poet Phillis Wheatley, a former slave and the first Black woman to publish a book in America. Removed from a wider context it has a strange ambiguity here, hinting at a disturbing narrative involving a missing man, but also points towards the isolation of this female character, who tries to speak what Simpson calls "her truth," only to be disregarded and ignored. Art critic Holland Cotter observes of this enigmatic character in the New York Times, "Even when she is willing to share herself, it turns out, she is devalued."

Simpson made this work early in her career as a photographer, when she was experimenting with how the juxtaposition of image and text could invest greater emotional, narrative, or political meaning into an image, echoing the charged textual art of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Later in the 1980s, Simpson focused increasingly on documentation of women, injecting loaded passages of text that open up discussion on issues around discrimination and marginalization.

Simpson often deliberately photographed women from behind in these early career photographs to highlight the horrific dehumanizing objectification of racism, echoed by the strange clinical gowns that adorned all her characters. But Cotter argues there is a certain liberation in leaving these women anonymous, arguing, "Because her face isn't visible, she retains a degree of control." Although Simpson's archetypal women in works such as these are mysterious and unknown, there is a suggestion that Simpson is replaying events from the past to suggest a better future going forward. Curator Joan Simon highlights this theatrical staging in Simpson's work arguing it is "built on the juxtaposition of gestures and re-enactments."

The abstract concept of memory and its personal intimacy hinted at in this work would come to play a more vital role in Simpson's later video work.

Guarded Conditions (1989)

Guarded Conditions (1989)

In this chilling sequence of photographs six women are lined into a row with eerily similar appearances. But closer inspection reveals small differences between each person; some have their feet positioned differently, while in others their heads and torsos are misaligned, creating an uneasy dissonance. Beneath them the phrases SEX ATTACKS and SKIN ATTACKS are repeated with the same ordered precision as the images above, but the allusion to racist and sexist violence adds a deeper level of nervous tension to the artwork.

Simpson's repeat statements relate to the two-pronged attacks inflicted upon Black women, who are marginalized by both their gender and race. On the one hand, this dehumanizing group seen only from behind resembles what art historian Beryl Wright calls, "multiple situations of institutional repression and surveillance, such as slave auctions, hospital examination rooms and criminal line ups." But as with all Simpson's photographs, these women are given far greater complexity and respect; each woman has one hand clenched in furious defiance, while their long white gowns give them the spiritual aura of guardian angels, ready to stand up against acts of unwanted aggression.

By the late 1980s Simpson was earning international recognition for her biting commentaries on the ongoing racial conflicts in America. Her work during this period often broke apart women's bodies as seen here, alluding to the jarring violence inflicted upon Black women. Writer Sofia Retta argues, "Simpson's subtle fragmentation of the photographs speaks to the mutilation of Black women's bodies, from the wounds of beatings and sexual violence during slavery to the ongoing killings at the hands of police."

Necklines (1989)

Necklines (1989)

Three images of the same woman bristle against one another, revealing different aspects of her neckline, with glimpses of lips and hair, while the rest of her identity is hidden. Below, a play on the word "neck" unravels, each term conjuring various situationist possibilities for the woman from competition to fear to romance to fashion. In descending order, the left box reads: necktie, neck & neck, neck-ed, and neckless while the right reads: necking, neckline, necklace, and breakneck. The serrated edge of her white t-shirt hints at underlying violence, a sentiment echoed in the jarring inclusion of the words "neckless" and "breakneck."

During this time, Simpson made a series of images like this one, exploring Black women's necks arranged into disjointed views. Seen without the words, these images could be read as ambiguous portraits of a mysterious woman, but Simpson demonstrates how even the most seemingly simple additions of language can entirely alter our perception of an image, conjuring up the vast complexity of our history. Highlighting fragile women's necks allowed Simpson to push forward into the horrifying territory of America's past, when lynching was common practice, forcing us to look at issues that have so often been brushed under the carpet. This direct confrontation of America's dark history has had a profound impact on artists since, particularly African-American artist Kara Walker, who similarly forces viewers to walk directly into the horrors of the past.

Along with the overt reference to violence, undercurrents of female strength and authority are also suggested by the woman's defiant stance and closed, set lips. Paper magazine described this visual complexity as a "striking commentary on Black female sexuality, lynching, and ideas of supremacist propriety."

Influences and Connections

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Lorna Simpson
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Lorna Simpson
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Lorna Simpson
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    James Casebere
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Lorna Simpson

articles
video clips

Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper

"Lorna Simpson Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments Ideas added by Kimberly Cooper
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First published on 19 Nov 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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