There’s a strong metafictional element in Laurie Simmons’s new film, My Art, which she wrote, directed, and stars in. The movie, on view at the Tribeca Film Festival, opens with her character, artist Ellie Shine, walking through the Whitney Museum’s inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See, in the Meatpacking District location. Shine stands in front of a work by Simmons’s real-life husband, Carroll Dunham, and meets her real-life daughter, Lena Dunham, on an outdoor terrace. She plays one of Shine’s former students who’s clearly much more successful than Shine herself — she’s complaining about how many upcoming shows she has and having to spend too much time in Europe.
Unlike Simmons, Shine is unmarried, without children, and presumably not included in America is Hard to See. But are feelings of loneliness and a comparative lack of success always part of an artist’s life, no matter what kind of family or exhibition history he or she has?
In a subsequent scene, Shine visits her artist friend Mickey (Blair Brown) and a Marilyn Minter stand-in (the real Minter appears briefly at the end of the film). Shine describes her ideas for a future project in a way that relates to much of Simmons’s work as well (since the 1970s, the artist has photographed dolls and other miniature objects and interiors): “It’s still like excerpts from a visual diary,” she says. “It’s still stuff about memory and longing, nostalgia.”
Mickey reveals that she owns Shine’s work and adored her friend’s last show. Later in the film, she helps Shine secure an exhibition with her gallerist. Here’s another metafictional nod: Simmons and Minter both exhibit at Salon 94, run by Jeanne Rohatyn Greenberg — in real life, the dealer has been credited with bringing renewed attention to both artists’ work. Simmons demonstrates an interest in the way that women of the art world support each other, privileging camaraderie over competition. Throughout the film, the importance of friendship remains a constant as Shine decamps upstate for the summer, enjoys a romantic interlude, and makes new art.
Notably, Shine’s work only really begins to take shape as she establishes new friendships in the small town. Two gardeners, out-of-work actors themselves, agree to act in her films, as does a lawyer who’s in the area. Her art, it turns out, benefits more from eager collaborators than it does from isolation. Together, they reenact scenes from old films such as The Misfits and A Clockwork Orange that relate in varying degrees to what’s going on in their lives. Throughout the scenes, Shine dons wigs and costumes to personify such stars as Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich. The videos allude to Cindy Sherman’s film stills and predilection for disguise. “I hate when other people give me ideas. It feels like art school,” Shine tells Mickey after the latter suggests, “you should embarrass yourself more.” Yet, Shine seems to have taken this advice, or at least agreed to take new risks in positioning herself in front of the camera. One might say the same of Simmons, for whom this film represents an entirely new direction — she’s never made a feature film before.
A few subplots attempt to add minimal drama the film. Shine has a fling with one of the gardeners, Frank (Robert Clohessy). The other gardener, Tom (Joshua Safdie), contends with an unhappy marriage to a wacky wife (Parker Posey). The lawyer, John (John Rothman), reconsiders his career choices. Shine has an adorable, aging dog whose death seems imminent the first time he limps on screen. These storylines can seem underdeveloped and incomplete. Yet thankfully, Shine’s creative efforts and her ultimate triumph — her time upstate allows her to make the work she wants to make — remain central to the film. Shine’s collaborators are more like playthings than serious romantic interests, and it’s fun to watch them fall under the artist’s spell and take her orders. In one of Shine’s reimagined scenes, the artist and a red-eyed cat seem to actually bewitch the lawyer.
Shine needs a room of her own to create, and the large upstate house offers her plenty of space. Beyond that, friendship serves as the second most important key to success: it provides her with collaborators, secures her financial support for future projects, and gives her a forum to exhibit her work. After all, it’s one of Shine’s artist friends who literally gifts her that room of her own (the upstate home) to begin with.
The film ends back in New York, at an opening (at the real Salon 94) for Shine’s new work. Frank treks down, and Shine tells him that she’s surprised he came. The final shot features Shine standing alone, reading a review of her work that will be in print the next day. The romantic prospect seems trivial, and one suspects that Frank and Shine couldn’t actually sustain a relationship outside the idyllic upstate town. What seems more important for Shine is that her friends and students are there supporting her, and her new art is on view. For all the loneliness and success that will come and go for Shine — and, perhaps, for Simmons — the artist seems to have all she really needs.
My Art by Laurie Simmons continues at the Tribeca Film Festival through Sunday, April 30.