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A Closer Look: Lorna Simpson

Lorna SimpsonPrestel, 2013.
Lorna Simpson presents an extensive catalogue of work by the artist, published by Prestel on the occasion of her first solo museum exhibition in Europe at the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) and the Jeu de Paume in association with Haus der Kunst, Munich. It provides a sweeping look at three decades of Lorna Simpson’s enthralling, conceptual work, from her early documentary photographs (1978-1980), photo & text pieces of the mid 1980s, recent video installations, sketches and drawings.

Simpson began her foray into photography in the late 70s while living in New York City and attending the School of Visual Arts (SVA). She began making documentary photographs of the world around her – crossed glances, pauses in conversation, moments exchanged between strangers. Simpson expressed interest in the roles of the photographer, subject and observer -- roles that later became cornerstones of her photography and video installations.

from Lorna Simpson

Over her thirty year career, Simpson has actively questioned the assumption of truth presented in the photographic image, taking on such "definitive" truths as identity, race, gender, sexuality, memory and history. In her early documentary work, she used photography to capture the decisive moment during which she related to her subject. By the mid 1980s, Simpson suspended the decisive moment in time – begging the audience to come into relation with her – to attach meaning to the images and words she presented to us by bringing our own judgments and preconceived notions to the table.

from Lorna Simpson
from Lorna Simpson

We, as the viewer, are required to fill in the blanks of her intentionally broken narratives. And for me, that space is riddled with the violent history of racism. The word "noose," appearing in several of her pieces, carries with it a powerful testament to the cruel and unjust racism that has permeated Western Civilization for centuries. I conjure images of Sara Baartman ("the Venus Hottentot") who was taken from her home in South Africa in 1810 and relocated to London, where she became the object of scientific study and exhibited as a "freak" across Britain. I can't help but think of Eugenics and the 19th century widespread embrace of the concept of genetic (racial) superiority.

Simpson alludes to these dark moments in history through serial imagery in her own work and the texts that accompany the images. These are not portraits of black men and women, their hair, lips and postures -- these are scientific studies. They are cold, sterile and dark.

from Lorna Simpson

from Lorna Simpson

Presence and absence are driving forces in Lorna Simpson’s work. The absence of the black face in her portraits parallels the absence of the black person in history. A faceless person does not have a story, a voice or an identity, nor do they have a hand in writing history -- and it is this absence that creates such a strong presence in her work. Perhaps what is so powerful about Lorna Simpson’s work is how she entrusts the viewer with the almost daunting task of attaching meaning to her work. She creates visual and poetic riddles that beg to be solved and that, without an active participant, are unsolvable. This handsomely printed volume of her work invites us to dive into the murky waters of historical accuracy and representation as well as consider the blurred lines of gender, race and sexuality. --Erin Azouz

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