Lorna Simpson’s fire and ice
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