Photographer Spotlight: Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson

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Lorna Simpson (born 1960) is an African-American artist and photographer who made her name in the 1980’s and 1990’s with artworks such as Guarded Conditions and Square Deal. She is one of the leading artists of her generation (to much critical acclaim), and her works have been included in numerous exhibitions both nationally and internationally.

 Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1960, she attended the High School of Art and Design and the School of Visual Arts in New York, and then the University of California, San Diego. Her earliest work was as a documentary street photographer, before moving her observations of race and society into her studio. Simpson began exploring ethnic divisions in the 1980’s era of multiculturalism. Her most notable works combine words with photographs of anonymously cropped images of women and occasionally men. While the pictures may appear straightforward, the text will often confront the viewer with the underlying racism still found in American culture.

Simpson first came to prominence in the 1980’s for her large-scale works that combined photography and text and defied traditional conceptions of gender, identity, race, culture, history, and memory. Drawing on this work, she started to create large photos printed on felt that showed public but unnoticed sexual encounters. Recently, Simpson has experimented with film as well as continuing to work with photography.

Simpson’s 1989 work, Necklines, shows two circular and identical photographs of a black woman’s mouth, chin, neck, and collar-bone. The white text, “ring, surround, lasso, noose, eye, areola, halo, cuffs, collar, loop”, individual words on black plaques, imply menace, binding or worse. The final phrase, text on red “feel the ground sliding from under you,” openly suggests lynching, though the adjacent images remain serene, non-confrontational and elegant.

Simpson’s work Guarded Conditions, created in 1989, was one in a series in which Simpson has assembled fragmented Polaroid images of a female model whom she has regularly collaborated with. The body is fragmented and viewed from behind, while the back of the model’s head is sensed as being in a state of guardedness towards possible hostility she can anticipate as a result of the combination of her gender and the color of her skin. The complex historical and symbolic associations of African-American hairstyles are also brought into play. The message of the text and the formal treatment of the image reinforce a sense of vulnerability. The fragmentation and serialization of bodily images disrupts and denies the body’s wholeness and individuality. In attempting to read the work the viewer is provoked into confronting recent histories of Western appropriation and consumption of the black female body.

Simpson has explored various media and techniques, including two-dimensional photographs as well as silk screening her photographs on large felt panels, creating installations, or producing as video works such as Call Waiting (1997). She was the first Black woman to participate at the In a recent video work, Corridor (2003), Simpson sets two women side-by-side; a household servant from 1860 and a wealthy homeowner from 1960. Both women are portrayed by artist allowing parallel and haunting relationships to be drawn. She has commented, “I do not appear in any of my work. I think maybe there are elements to it and moments to it that I use from my own personal experience, but that, in and of itself, is not so important as what the work is trying to say about either the way we interpret experience or the way we interpret things about identity.”

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