Laurie Simmons isn’t the first photographer to snap pictures of dolls, but she has a way of getting them to look eerily emotive (and making them take selfies). She pulls off the uncanny by aestheticizing several layers of lies. Dolls’ faces are typically frozen in unreal expressions of politely understated glamour, and Simmons finds just the right composition to melt that facade and show the inner feelings and emotional heat that dolls are designed to hide. Her ability to gives fake feelings to fake humans — and get the camera to lie in the process — is sublime. If you’re craving one of those rare moments when art actually gets under your skin, Simmons’s show at Salon 94 Bowery is not to be missed.
The artist’s latest body of work depicts dollers, a circle of cosplay enthusiasts, predominantly in Japan, who dress up like anime-style female dolls and wear their costumes out in public. Sometimes they embody beloved anime characters; other times they’re just generic dolls. The women and men underneath go to great lengths to suppress any lingering vestiges of their own bodies, wearing 360-degree masks, wigs, and full bodysuits.
Simmons brought the costumes, masks, and accoutrements into her realm, decked out her models, and started to photograph dollers of her own creation. Doing with living dolls what she’s long done with toy ones, she draws out expressions and feelings you didn’t know these artificial creations could convey. She’s a semiotic renegade.
“Orange Hair / Snow / Close Up” (2014) is one of the most arresting works in the show. The carrottop clinches her scarf amid a snow storm, with wide green eyes and a piercing chartreuse glow. It’s a carefully crafted composition: the neutral white snow background makes the orange hair stand out like a traffic cone urging caution; that orange contrasts with the green eyes so starkly that it creates a visual shrillness; and the hands are carefully and stereotypically placed to suggest the chill. Hair, eyes, and hands triangulate into feelings of fright, terror, and awe. Those Bambi eyes were meant to be cute and infantilizing, but Simmons twists them into a new role of raw, thinly veiled fear. The fact that the mask is now fighting against this fear and trying to suppress it makes it seem more real.
Other works explore worry (“Blonde / Pink Dress / Green Room / Close Up” ), daydreaming (“Blonde / Aqua Sweater / Dog” ), selfie posing (“Yellow Hair / Red Coat / Snow / Selfie” ), and mischievously subtle enticement (“Yellow Hair / Brunette / Mermaids” ). In each one, the dollers exude feelings that contradict their manufactured intentions.
When asked about color, Simmons told Hyperallergic, “you have to be brave.” And these brazen color combinations enable her subversion. As an example, the blue in “Yellow Hair / Brunette / Mermaids” (2014) plays up the relaxed, flirtatious energy emanating from the mermaids; it would be harder to pull off with red. Simmons obscures both doll faces in order to tone down the masks’ strident gaze, and with the addition of the blue palette, she allows them to subvert the hardwired “I’m at your disposal” expression. These mermaids may or may not go for you (which makes them hotter).
Simmons’ works are haunting because there’s denial in every picture. The masks’ glamour and emotional vacancy lingers, contrasting with the emotive elements that the artist accentuates. Are the dollers fighting off their feelings? Simmons shows the desire to be just an emotionless doll and its impossibility.
Laurie Simmons: Kigurumi, Dollers and How We See continues at Salon 94 Bowery (243 Bowery, Lower East Side) through April 27.