Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Lorna Simpson (American, b. 1960)

Bio, 1992

Internal dye diffusion transfer process prints and engraved Plexiglas plaques

98 x 162 in. (248.9 x 411.5 cm)

Gift of Maremont Corporation by exchange; purchased through funds provided by AT&T NEW ART/NEW VISIONS

Bio consists of 18 Polaroid prints (nine plastic plaques), which are positioned in three horizontal rows. The central row is occupied by images of a woman dressed in a man’s suit and shown in various “masculine” poses. The bottom row is a series of men’s shoes, and along the top are images of shoeboxes accompanied by text. The text refers (obliquely) to biological or physical suffering (panel three, for example, reads, “bled to death outside hospital 60 years ago”), and to the signs of difference contained within the black body, which come under the punitive gaze of racism (panel four reads, “tendency to keloid”). The entire grid structure is united by the last three engraved plaques, which read “biopsy,” “biology,” and “biography.” These three words bring to mind a powerful and disturbing concoction of pain (also suggested by the blood red that suffuses all the images), the physical attributes of difference, and the lack of a documented history from which a dispossessed people suffers.

In this work, Simpson invites comparison among the images. Both the dress and the posture of the female figure challenge conventional gender roles and suggest that gender is not innate but rather constructed through clothing and gesture. The unusual cropping of the images draws the viewer’s attention to the figure’s hand gestures and their relative proximity of her hands to the crotch, highlighting the impossibility of biology to completely define who we are.

Lorna Simpson’s textual/photographic work eloquently questions stereotypical images of women, specifically of black women, by simultaneously revealing and resisting the dominant representations of gender and race. Like her slightly senior colleagues Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, Simpson presents the female “object” as a complex subject by revealing how language and image insidiously can work together to create degrading stereotypes. Simpson uses a poetical and yet critical language in combination with images of black women and men to perform a series of interrogations, accusations, and pleas that both complicate and inform the issues of gender and race relations. Simpson’s work is characterized by a somber, minimal aesthetic that requires concentrated attention in order to unravel the connections and contradictions between the verbal and pictorial elements.