From her early photographs of dolls acting like humans, to more recent explorations of humans who resemble dolls, artist Laurie Simmons has spent her career blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Simmons’s subjects are often as deeply familiar as they are unsettling: people, places, and objects that we know well, shifted ever so slightly out of context or expected roles. Her latest exploration of the real and the unreal, the excellent and tightly curated How We See, is currently on view at New York’s Jewish Museum.
Tucked inside a small gallery on an upper floor, How We See is a series of photographs inspired by Doll Girls, a largely female subculture that’s gained increased visibility in the age of the internet. Using makeup and, at times, plastic surgery, Doll Girls alter their bodies to more closely resemble cartoon characters; slim waists, long hair, and large, round eyes are hallmarks of the look. Taking cues from the self-portraits on Doll Girls’ Tumblrs and Instagram accounts, Simmons photographed six fashion models against candy-colored backgrounds, which pop cheerfully against the gallery’s white walls and stately molding. Captured from the chest up in crisp Rachel Antonoff blouses, her subjects are beautiful the way magazine models typically are, with poreless skin, obedient hairlines, and slightly vacant gazes. But a close look reveals that the models’ eyes aren’t open at all; instead, eyes have been painted on top of their closed lids, a signature makeup technique of the Doll Girls.
The eyes are strikingly detailed, with bright whites and a realistic tinge of pink that creeps along to indicate waterlines and tear ducts. In “How We See/Edie (Green)” (2015), the lashes are painted on with delicate, feather-like brushstrokes; in “How We See/Lindsay (Gold)” (2015), they’re framed by individual false lashes, placed by an impressively steady hand. But what makes the painted-on eyes truly sparkle is the catchlight — the reflection of the camera’s flash that appears white, and is typically exaggerated in the sad, oversized eyes of manga characters. The portraits are equal parts alien and alluring; enticing with their sugary sweet colors, yet uncanny in their mystery.
The uneasy feeling Simmons’s photos elicit might be familiar to those who spend time on social media. It’s the stone in the stomach that comes with realizing you’ve checked your Instagram feed six times in 30 minutes, or knowing more about a Tumblr celebrity’s life than a real world acquaintance. Social media grooms us to be voyeurs, gleaning hidden details of strangers’ lives through photos, yet these give up no secrets. As the saying goes, the eyes are the windows to the soul. Yet in How We See, they’re nothing more than a mirage, revealing less about the subjects than they do about the viewers.