Lorna Simpson: In The Studio. | Video by Hauser & Wirth

 

OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS OR SO, Lorna Simpson has transformed her practice. An accomplished conceptual photographer, she is now a formidable painter, who is newly expressing herself through sculpture. Since the mid-1980s, Brooklyn-based Simpson has challenged conventional notions of gender, identity, history, and memory. She continues to explore the same themes in new mediums.

Her fresh direction is fully realized in her latest exhibition, her first solo show with Hauser & Wirth gallery. The London presentation showcases a new body of work—paintings, photographic collages and sculptures.

Combining silkscreen, acrylic, and collage, Simpson’s large-scale paintings are dominated by plumes of deep blues and charcoals grays. Referencing storm elements and natural phenomena, the images are metaphors for instability and lack of control and the power of perseverance and change. A series of collages made with images sourced from newspaper archives and Ebony and Jet magazines consider female representation, imagining women in absurd juxtapositions with deer heads, flames, and architectural elements. Composed of glass blocks and piles of the vintage magazines, her precariously stacked sculptures comment on ways of looking and seeing, providing varying perspectives, a lens through which to view the past and give context to contemporary culture.

Combining silkscreen, acrylic, and collage, Simpson’s large-scale paintings are dominated by plumes of deep blues and charcoals grays. Referencing storm elements and natural phenomena, the images are metaphors for instability and lack of control and the power of perseverance and change.

The genesis for her latest trajectory was a summer residency provided by collector and philanthropist Pamela Joyner. During that time in San Francisco, Simpson was in the midst of a divorce. She began to paint and, desiring to push herself, worked on a large scale. She proposed the multi-panel works for a presentation at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Initially, Okwui Enwezor, her friend who was the biennale’s artistic director, was not convinced. But she kept at the work and won him over. (Twenty-five years earlier, in 1990, Simpson was the first African American woman to have her work exhibited at the prestigious international exhibition.)

After showing the new paintings in Venice, she presented a fall 2016 show at Salon 94 in New York, continuing in the same direction. Drawing on archival images from the Associated Press, the paintings spoke to deconstructed identities and a social and political climate mired in police violence against black bodies. Then she left Salon 94 and, in April 2017, joined Hauser & Wirth. Her inaugural outing with the new mega-gallery was a solo exhibition at Frieze New York in May, where she introduced sculpture in dialogue with her paintings.

 


LORNA SIMPSON, “Ice 4,” 2018 (ink and acrylic on gessoed wood panel, 259.1 x 365.8 x 3.5 cm / 102 x 144 x 1 3/8 inches). | © Lorna Simpson, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by James Wang

 

SIMPSON OPENED THE LONDON EXHIBITION with a March 1 conversation with Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. The women, who have been friends for 30 years, talked about the evolution of Simpson’s work, her use of the female form, her themes and source materials, and what has fueled her practice throughout the years. The audience included artists Glenn Ligon, another close friend, and Matthew Day Jackson, whose work is also currently on view at the gallery.

“Things are fueled by one’s experience. It’s almost impossible, at this point, to say that my engagement is 100 percent my formal relationship to my work. It has to do with my personal life, kicking and screaming and fighting through divorces, or leaving galleries, or just political situations in terms of sometimes the way I am treated,” Simpson said. ”

“It is great to be a somewhat celebrated artist, but you know in certain situations or circumstances the way that I am treated I have to kind of set people straight and create boundaries. And, I think those experiences, and also my day-to-day, influences the way work gets worked out.”

“Things are fueled by one’s experience. It’s almost impossible, at this point, to say that my engagement is 100 percent my formal relationship to my work. It has to do with my personal life, kicking and screaming and fighting through divorces or leaving galleries or just political situations in terms of sometimes the way I am treated.” — Lorna Simpson

While recent events have weighed on her choice of content and medium, Simpson has consistently reached for new ways of working throughout her career—engaging in a wide variety of photography and video projects, collaborating with other artists, and pairing archival images with watercolor, for example. With her decision to pursue painting, she is actually returning to her roots. Before embracing photography, which she says “continues to influence everything,” Simpson studied painting in school. Taking it up anew, she said even though the experience was surprising, it came with a certain ease.

Golden began her exchange with Simpson by acknowledging the work surrounding them in the gallery. Referencing their longstanding connection over three decades, she said:

“I have the privilege to know your work through that expanse of time and through the many bodies of work you made in that period. What’s so exciting is to sit among this work that is so very new for you, but reaching in ways out towards the future of your practice. It’s incredibly amazing and courageous when artists take a step forward and you’ve taken a big one with this body of work.”


LORNA SIMPSON, Details (2) from “Unanswerable,” 2018 (found photograph and collage on paper, 40 framed photo collages, approximately 670.5 x 304.8 cm / 264 x 120 inches). | © Lorna Simpson, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by James Wang

 

Following are highlights from the conversation between Simpson and Golden:

The exhibition is called “Unanswerable,” which is the title for an installation of 40 collages featured in the show. Simpson explained the works and their role in her process.

That’s a selection of collages that I’ve done, that I wanted to curate in and around the themes within this selection of work. I always had in my mind having that as a key feature of an exhibition… You would see the work through the lens of the collages. The collages serve as a practice for me, as a way of my own subconscious. There are not very many elements that are contained within them. It’s kind of very binary. I just threw one thing up against another thing. Most of the source imagery is press photos from defunct newspapers that are selling off their archive. I kind of find out a lot about what I am thinking as I make these collages. There are women on fire. There are women sitting on ice. There are women looking completely calm and collected or dancing while on fire or just bursting into flames. After a while of making collages… I would pursue those themes that I was coming up with, subconsciously, which is interesting. It provides this window into my own subconscious, for myself, and then those elements help to fuel the paintings and the other works that come out of that.

Simpson said taking up painting brought her both a sense of ease and unease.

When I went into undergraduate school, I started as a painter and kind of quickly gave up because I was like, “Oh my God, everybody whose two years ahead of me is so much better than me. Let me just quit this shit now and figure out something else.” I was very intimidated, but there was something about that foundation—a year and a half, 2 years of painting—something about mark making had remained over all this course of time. I am not saying I am brilliant, but there was something about my ease with mark making that it just kind of would just happen. I was like this is magic. Something in the execution was surprising. It came with ease, although I was a little bit freaked out, of course, in what I was doing.

…I guess in all the mediums and genres and things that I do, there is this level of discomfort. …My relationship to my practice isn’t always like this is so relaxing and effortless and it’s so happy to make this and I have it all worked out. There is usually, more and more, some kind of conflict, tension, and unease with proceeding and kind of having to say, “Let’s just see what happens.” I think it’s my interest in process, as part of what fuels the work as well. I mean it’s nice to be able to finish some stuff, but also they have to fulfill some sort of interest for me in terms of my process.

 


Installation view, “Lorna Simpson. Unanswerable,” Hauser & Wirth London, 2018, featuring LORNA SIMPSON, “Montage,” 2018 (Ink and acrylic on 5 gessoed fiberglass panels, 170.2 x 635 x 3.5 cm / 67 x 250 x 1 3/8 inches). | Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Alex Delfanne

 

After successfully working with photography and video, Simpson bravely introduced her paintings on a world stage, rather soft launching them in a small show.

I feel like I work in public a lot. …I have the nerve to be like, “I am going to do something new. I am going to do it in Venice, if I can get in Venice. And I don’t care. It’s going to fail. It’s going to be good. It’s going to be whatever it is, but I am going to give it my best and see what happens.” Rather than working on it for five years quietly and then introducing it and saying, “Oh, well there is a range of 20 things. I haven’t released them yet. They are very private.” I never work like that. It is always very much public, for some reason. That’s kind of how it began.

At the end of the discussion, the audience asked questions. A woman said she wanted to go back to what Simpson had said earlier, that people wanted to put her into boxes regarding her subject matter and audience. Given that her work is based on an African American experience, because she uses archives, the woman wondered was she ever tempted to “look into other cultures”?

That question is kind of posed to me in a way of like when I have a show or, say this show, or I guess maybe in the U.S. [I get asked], “How is your work received in Europe as an African American? Or how is your work received in London or how might your work be perceived Hong Kong?” That’s a different culture.

I guess the way I am interpreting your question is how does this work, how am I in conversations with people other than my own culture? Let me put it to you this way, I have the arrogance to think that being African American my shit can be very universal and in that arrogance I am forcing everybody else to get on the same page. And so therefore, if I can go through 10 years of art school, and I can sit there and look at Kiki Smith’s work and understand the universality of her work and the skin and the body and its absence and being flayed, how is it that I can understand that as universal, but mine isn’t? CT

 

“Lorna Simpson: Unanswerable” is on view at Hauser & Wirth London from March 1-April 28, 2018.

 

VIEW VIDEO images of the exhibition, both individual works and installation views

 

BOOKSHELF
A new volume, “Lorna Simpson Collages,” is forthcoming in June. To further explore Lorna Simpson’s work, “Lorna Simpson” is a comprehensive catalogue documenting her body of work over the past three decades. Accompanying an exhibition of the same name, “Lorna Simpson: Works on Paper,” explores her collages and drawings. An earlier monograph simply titled “Lorna Simpson” accompanied a touring exhibition and includes contributions from Okwui Enwezor, Helaine Posner, Hilton Als, and Thelma Golden.

 


LORNA SIMPSON, “Ice 3,” 2018 (ink and acrylic on gessoed fiberglass 274.3 x 243.8 x 3.2 cm / 108 x 96 x 1 1/4 inches). | © Lorna Simpson, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by James Wang

 


From left, LORNA SIMPSON, “5 Properties,” 2018 (Ebony and Jet magazines, poly sleeves, bronze, plaster, glass, Unique, 114.6 x 33 x 44.5 cm / 45 1/8 x 13 x 17 1/2 inches). | © Lorna Simpson, Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Alex Delfanne; LORNA SIMPSON, Detail of “Unanswerable,” 2018 (found photograph and collage on paper, 40 framed photo collages, approximately 670.5 x 304.8 cm / 264 x 120 inches). | Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo by James Wang

 


LORNA SIMPSON, Detail of “Unanswerable,” 2018 (found photograph and collage on paper, 40 framed photo collages, approximately 670.5 x 304.8 cm / 264 x 120 inches). | © Lorna Simpson, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo by James Wang

 


Installation view, “Lorna Simpson. Unanswerable,” Hauser & Wirth London, 2018. | Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, Photo by Alex Delfanne

 

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