CHICAGO — Confessions of an arts writer: my background is in theater design. Window Dressing, an exhibition by Diane Simpson currently on display at MCA Chicago, sent a thrill right to the secret place where I keep theater design in my heart. Theater sets exist at the precarious intersection of art and architecture, functionality and decoration, real and imagined space, historical re-creation and revision; in these works, Diane Simpson channels all of these tensions into a series of elegant and meticulous tableaus that take the form of set design’s younger sister: window design.
While a theater set carves out a pocket in time and space for a narrative to unfold, window design must go further, providing a character as well. It has to suggest a world both easily identified and intriguing enough to draw the attention of passersby on the street. In place of the stereotypical mannequin, the stars of Simpson’s show are outsized and highly stylized garment constructions — bowler hat, apron, pinafore — rendered in wood and plastic mesh. These are posed against mat board and paper backdrops — but to see such a simple list of materials belies the incredible care and balance that Simpson has wrought through pattern, line, and motif.
These pieces — like most of Simpson’s work over a remarkably consistent 40-year art career — are unabashedly influenced by store window displays of the 1920s–30s. They’re a distillation of Art Deco design and research, and the repurposing of actual wallpaper and linoleum flooring from the time (a display outside the gallery lays out Simpsons research materials — be still, my heart!). She builds layer upon layer of pattern, structure, and embellishment into scenes that still manage to feel uncrowded and minimal. There’s a decidedly Asian influence to her work, which comes both from her interest in Japanese inns and display packaging as well as from an integration of the Art Deco fascination with pan-Asian (particularly Japanese) style. In “Window Dressing: Background 4, Apron VI” (2003/07), the central garment is as reminiscent of a stylized samurai jinbaori as it is an apron, and the background, which features a circular opening and white gridded wallpaper, equally suggests the vintage linoleum tiles of an American kitchen or the sliding paper screens of a traditional Japanese house.
Though Simpson’s work initially reads as impersonal, almost clinical in its fastidious ordering of details, these sedate, finished surfaces mask obsession and personal memory. Simpson is not simply enamored with bygone aesthetics — she was a child in the 1940s, and these motifs are part of her foundational memory and identity. Her reiteration of them, especially in conjunction with domestic themes, is a very sophisticated and practiced abstraction of what is fundamentally a child’s enchantment with the world. The starring role taken by objects in these tableaus speaks not only to the objective of traditional window displays — the glorification of the consumer goods available for purchase inside department stores — but also to animism, an aspect of the preoperational stage of mental development in which children believe that things are alive or have human characteristics. In a sense, Simpson has preserved a connection with her earliest perceptions of the world, while honing her expressive gifts and ability to think analytically about them.
Perhaps it’s this underlying sense of childlike wonder that makes an encounter with Window Dressing such a joy. The pieces are simple forms that could blend in unobtrusively with their surroundings in the context of a busy sidewalk, but given space for contemplation as art objects, they resist easy categorization. Simpson’s work is, ultimately, a leveraging of design to explore the personal and present it in universal and appealing terms — which also happens to be my definition of theater at its best.
Diane Simpson’s Window Dressing continues at MCA Chicago (220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago) through July 3.