Lorna Simpson (American, b. 1960)
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
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 which requires concentrated attention in order to unravel the connections and contradictions between the verbal and pictorial elements. Like that of other politically motivated African-American and feminist artists, such as Adrian Piper, Simpson’s work has been informed by recent cultural criticism and the politically active role this discipline aspires to.
Simpson, who was born in Brooklyn and now lives and works in New York, received her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in 1982 and her MFA from the University of California, San Diego, in 1985. Typically, her text and photographic installations represent a generic “black woman,” her face and its distinguishing characteristics hidden — variously cut off, turned away or masked — in order to suggest general rather than individual identity. Attention is not drawn to the figure’s sex — posture and frequently clothing are subtly androgynous — and the text or words that accompany the images refer to racial or gender assumptions.
Simpson is clearly aware of nineteenth-century documentary photography in which black people, often slaves, members of other minority groups, and criminals were recorded for putatively scientific and anthropological reasons. Like the similarly objective and serial documentary work of the contemporary German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher and their former student Thomas Struth, Simpson’s ambiguous generic types deny the possibility of making accurate generalizations, let alone scientific observations, based on appearance, clothing, body language, skin color, or hair type.
Bio (1992) consists of eighteen 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 (which is 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.