Jeu de Paume
28 May - 1 September 2013
Review by Catherine Spencer
Just to the side of the opening wall text for Lorna Simpson’s first major European solo show, curators Joan Simon and Okwui Enwezor have placed a modest 2010 work entitled ‘Seven Felts’. Comprised from seven close-up black-and-white photographs of lips, printed onto rectangular pieces of felt and stacked one on top of the other like options in a colour chart, the mouths are closed and mute, but the potential for speech or song remains powerfully apparent. Although shorn of other defining features, they nonetheless express individuality and infinite modulation within a set pattern, each unique as the voice it would release. The use of felt, on the other hand, suggests the muffling of sound, even as it infers the archive’s preserving action and its compacted dust of dead skin-cells. In one gesture, ‘Seven Felts’ encapsulates Simpson’s longstanding concerns with how identity might be simultaneously expressed and controlled, with the roles of speech and narrative in the formation and suppression of memory, and in the capacity of the archive to construct while keeping its histories.
The exhibition proper begins with a room devoted to the works that made Simpson’s critical name in the US during the 1980s and early ‘90s - sparse, tensely beautiful photographs paired with wall texts that mine both the disjunctions between words and images, and the capacity of words to alter indelibly the image they describe. ‘Water Bearer’ of 1986 manifests this central effect of Simpson’s early work: a black female body wearing a crisp, white cotton sheath-dress stands with her back to the viewer, holding a plastic container in one hand and a pewter ewer in the other, water spilling from the mouths of both. The text underneath reads: ‘She saw him disappear by the river / they asked her to tell what happened / only to discount her memory.’ The woman’s pose, emulating justice with her scales, stands for the many ways in which the gendered, racialised treatment of certain bodies has denied them expression.
The piercing clarity of Simpson’s photographs and texts, also on display in other key works such as ‘Five Day Forecast’ (1988), ‘Twenty Questions (A Sampler)’ (1986) and ‘Gestures/Reenactments’ (1985) have a classical quality that collapses multiple temporalities. While certain details in Simpson’s works evoke particular periods - such as the rounded sewing-sampler shapes in ‘Twenty Questions’ with their echoes of antebellum colonial past-times - they have a contemporary resonance that prevents them being treated as historical commentary, and bring the issues they treat right up into the present.
The culmination of this strand of Simpson’s work, which builds on artistic precedents such as David Hammons, Adrian Piper and Howardena Pindell, is represented in the Jeu de Paume exhibition by ‘Wigs II’ (1994-2006) which covers an entire wall with its multiple felt photographs of hairpieces seen from the back - dark, curly, blond, afro, straight, styled and mussed, some trussed up in nets like little animals. These are interspersed with small sections of text that point to the unstable nature of identity constructions, particularly those relating to gender and ethnicity: ‘she dressed them at times / sometimes female / sometimes male.’ These fragments hint at multiple stories imbued with a tone merging romance, fantasy and noir - a tone that has become increasingly apparent in Simpson’s more recent multimedia works.
Simpson’s intense engagement with narrative has also led her to the archive - both hers and those of others. Two large-scale felt photographs, ‘Day Time’ (2011) and ‘Day Time Gold’ (2011) offer a compelling example of this new direction, showing two iterations - one in colour, one in gold - of a fountain in front of the Lincoln Centre during the 1960s, which Simpson took from a found-photograph. The image is intensely nostalgic, suffused with a haziness that causes it to shimmer like a mirage and recede from the viewer. It is part of a series including the nearby ‘Momentum’, an eight-piece video work, in which Simpson has returned to a memory of a performance she did at the Centre as a young child, and which underlines the importance of being able to trace personal histories, but simultaneously inferring the slips waiting to falsify recollection.
It is however the intersection between the personal memories and group archives that particularly interests Simpson. The complex video-work ‘Chess’ (2013), in which Simpson herself performs, takes its inspiration from an archival five-way mirror photograph by Marcel Duchamp from 1917 at the Broadway Photo Shop in New York. Set to a jazz soundtrack, Simpson plays chess across two screens, dressed in one as a woman and one as a man, her every move mirrored but also refracted and changed through the angling of the reflections. At once tacit re-insertion of African-American creativity into established histories of Western modernism, reflection on the legacy of 1950s gender roles, and meditation on the importance of rules in order to facilitate free play and improvisation, ‘Chess’ is also highly visually and aurally seductive, a testament to our love-affairs with the histories we weave for, and of, ourselves.
These elements all carry through into the three final works of the exhibition, ‘Gather’ (2008), ‘Please Remind Me Who I Am’ (2009) and ‘1957-2009’ (2009). The latter is a performative tour-de-force: based on a series of found 1950s archive images of an African-American woman posing in a series of coy but seductive images (presumably for the male viewer/photographer who appears in some of them), Simpson photographed herself replicating some of the poses and then mixed them together to create the final installation. In this woman, Simpson has found a figure that embodies the tensions between model and creator, between subject and object, and who moreover literalises the desires that compel people to make images in the first place, then to hoard and treasure them, then to return to them. Simpson’s work is particularly impressive for the way in which it can deconstruct this impulse, and yet continue to recognise its importance, particularly for those such as women and ethnic minorities whose histories have often been left out of archives and histories.