Across the Atlantic with Brooklyn-based artist, Lorna Simpson

Ice 4, 2018 © Lorna Simpson Photo: James Wang

Ice 4, 2018 © Lorna Simpson
Photo: James Wang

“Me as an artist, any work that I would do that would just present a black figure, regardless of subject, has a particular charge in [this] country because of its history and relationship to race,” observed Lorna Simpson in 2007, the same year as her Whitney retrospective. Here’s an artist whose career started off in the 1970s, documenting the locales and people of Europe and Africa in a half self-discovery, half apprenticeship voyage. Returning back to her homeland, it was her radical turn of the camera towards the black female body that Simpson caught the impenetrable art world’s attention in the 80’s. Simpson became synonymous with racially surreal, large scale photo-texts. Her exploration in poignant anonymity was seen in Five Day Forecast, which was acquired by London’s Tate Modern in 2010. It was those five faceless women that gave the New Yorker her first outing in a major UK institution. 

Photo: James Wang

Photo: James Wang

Today, it is now a singular, faceless woman. She is standing, on a window ledge, smeared with ink. Her image is doubled, sandwiching an incoherent sequence of article images. Her portrait blemished in the traumatic palette of blue, black, and violet. Lorna Simpson’s absurdly brilliant “Montage” (2018), forces us to endure the grandeur of self-destruction. Looming over at over five feet, the collage echoes Simpson’s other new works shown in her inaugural London exhibition, “Unanswerable”. The sombre colors of “Montage” flow throughout her icescape paintings, while themes of liberty are encased in found objects and sculptures. As spectators and humans of “Unanswerable”, we are trapped in a trippy melodrama and faced with the conundrum is this suicide or freedom?  

The readiness for Simpson to reject her own world and embrace the absurd is pervasive. “Montage” is a eerie mash-up of the Brooklyn-born artist’s older photographic works - of passive femininity “Waterbearer” (1986), and of city architecture in “The Clock Tower” (1992). For those unfamiliar with Simpson’s oeuvre, the uncanny can be felt in her explicit use of personal archive and nostalgia - old magazines, ancient artifacts, and black and white imagery are the foundation of this show. 

Her idiosyncratic twist on the found object in “12 Stacks” and “5 Properties”. These “found sculptures” comprise of piles of vintage Ebony and Jet magazines with large, glass paperweights or a in “5”, a bronze African head. The blocks distort our view of the magazine covers underneath. Those seemingly unimaginative titles have hidden meanings too. “Props”, “Ice”, mean due respect, kill, with “Stacks” signifying money, in black American vernacular. Is Simpson possibly ridiculing the consistent racial interpretation of her work? 

The word, ‘unanswerable’ means “insoluble”, incapable of dissolving or impossible to solve. This double definition exposes how unfathomable the concept of race is, especially in America’s history. Simpson’s show like her country’s narrative is complex - when we think we’ve cracked the code, there is always another meaning, another puzzle piece to fit. I confess that my awe for the show was weighted in my kinship with the artist’s race and gender. However, skinship can be problematic. An artist extracts from their reality, and the burden of responsibility can hinder the creative process, sometimes to a fault. Simpson with use of her own archive, is showing the being prolific means success.

Woman on Snowball, 2018 © Lorna Simpson  Photo: Alex Delfanne

Woman on Snowball, 2018 © Lorna Simpson
Photo: Alex Delfanne

“Woman on Snowball” - a Sisyphean film prop from David Lynch’s brave side project on black feminism - is a woman with a white body and elephantine black head sitting atop a monumental styrofoam snowball. At 9ft, it is the show’s absurd apotheosis. While triumphant as it looks down on the spectators of Savile Row, the figure, awkwardly childlike, is huddled on the snowballing of history, melting into the gallery’s characteristic white space. This camouflage is confusing. With our increased hypervigilance towards interpretation, “Woman on Snowball” can be viewed as the final erasure of the body, a plea to look at the intellect. However, for the eagle-eyed, the sculpture is a mere materialisation of one of Simpson’s previous photo collages. It is just another creation. 

Leaving the gallery, a chilly, reflective mood lingers. With a chaotic departure away from her established medium of conceptual photography, a Simpson enthusiast may see this show as a blind leap of faith. Simpson, now liberated via great success, is free to play with ink, acrylic, glass, wood, and metals on a large scale. However, the freedom stops there. Her prominent career is as an African-American woman artist, so “Unanswerable” could be seen as Simpson’s own philosophical question. Throughout this dazzling show, it seems as though the artist asks: Is it impossible for you to see me as an artist without the adjectives?  


Unanswerable opens at Hauser & Wirth London March 1 and runs until April 28.  


Words: Nikki Hall