Storm force

Lorna Simpson’s fire and ice

Wallpaper - - March - pho­tog­ra­phy: rachel chandler writer: julie baum­gard­ner

Lor­naSimp­son can’t quite say where her prac­tice is head­ing. ‘I don’t know,’ she ex­claims with a big belly laugh, a fre­quent regis­ter for the artist. ‘And maybe that’s my re­sponse to even hav­ing a re­sponse to the work.’ Don’t think for a minute, though, that Simpson is some­how lost or un­sure of her po­si­tion. If al­most unas­sum­ing in her pub­lic pro­file, par­tic­u­larly in com­par­i­son to many of her more flam­boy­ant con­tem­po­raries, Simpson is def­i­nitely in the top tier of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can artists.

Simpson rose through the ranks as a con­cep­tual pho­tog­ra­pher in the 1980s, and has im­pacted the medium with her par­tic­u­lar use of text, even­tu­ally also branch­ing out into video. Both the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art and the Walker Art Cen­ter picked up on early Simpson work, sub­se­quently re­vis­it­ing her mid-ca­reer, and she was the first African-amer­i­can woman to ex­hibit at the Venice Bi­en­nale, in 1990.

For the last three years or so, Simpson has swapped her cam­era for found pho­tog­ra­phy. Im­ages are culled from the Associated Press, as well as pi­o­neer­ing African-amer­i­can pe­ri­od­i­cals Jet and Ebony, then in­cor­po­rated in paint­ings, a medium that she de­buted at the 2017 Venice Bi­en­nale. ‘All this paint­ing that I’m do­ing is closely re­lated to pho­tog­ra­phy,’ she says. Simpson first silkscreens these found im­ages onto fi­bre­glass pan­els be­fore ges­so­ing and wash­ing them in colour­ful ex­pres­sions of paint. She in­sists, though, that this process is not aimed at pho­to­re­al­ism. ‘I’m not try­ing to talk about pho­tog­ra­phy through the medium of paint­ing.’ Nor is it an ef­fort to sum­mon the clas­si­cal muses. ‘I don’t know what [clas­si­cal paint­ing] is,’ she cracks, ‘and I don’t think I want to know.’ Her lat­est paint­ings, as well as new col­lages and sculp­tures, will ap­pear at a show at Hauser & Wirth in Lon­don in March. She signed with the gallery last April, a move that prompted her to ‘think more am­bi­tiously about what I want to do. It was a great fit in terms of how I saw my­self as an artist, and in as­sist­ing me in what I want to ac­com­plish next at this point in my life.’

‘It is clear that she is an artist who con­tin­u­ally evolves,’ says Iwan Wirth, one of the gallery’s founders. ‘I be­lieve that Lorna is a cen­tral voice in a gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can artists. For me, the work is so com­pelling be­cause she con­fronts the per­sonal and pub­lic sig­nif­i­cance of past and cur­rent events while tak­ing an in­tel­lec­tual ap­proach to a va­ri­ety of me­dia.’ ‘I al­ways think in se­ries, not in­di­vid­ual works,’ says Simpson. And the new works build on an in­stal­la­tion she pre­sented at Frieze New York last year. ‘I didn’t want to make Frieze just a one-off. I wanted to mine that work.’

Re­flect­ing on the past two years, Simpson notes that ‘the land­scape of my per­sonal life and the land­scape of the world that we’re liv­ing in now – and not to be a fa­tal­ist or vic­tim – cer­tainly has had an in­ten­sity to it.’ One night re­cently, Zora, her 18-year-old daugh­ter with fel­low artist James Case­bere and some­thing of a so­cial me­dia it-girl, read her a pas­sage from The Se­cret His­tory by Donna Tartt and the word ‘unan­swer­able’ jumped out. ‘I feel it doesn’t get used very of­ten.’ It con­notes, she says, ‘si­lence, and the pos­ing of a ques­tion that, in its con­text or premise, makes no sense. There’s no an­swer, not be­cause it’s “unan­swer­able”, but the na­ture of the ques­tion makes it un­able to be an­swered.’ That’s the schism, pos­si­bil­ity,

top, Unan­swer­able (De­tail), 2018, found pho­to­graph and col­lage on pa­per, by lorna simpson

above, simpson’s lim­ited-edi­tion dou­ble cover, Older Queen, found pho­to­graph and col­lage on pa­per (see other cover, right), avail­able to sub­scribers, see wall­pa­per.com

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