On the cover of Lorna Simpson’s new book, Lorna Simpson Collages, out now from Chronicle Books, there’s a cutout image of a black woman’s face, eyes kohl-rimmed, diamond necklace hanging in negative space. In lieu of her hair is a whole other head, an emerging woman in profile, a cross-section image of a brain revealing neurons that stretch like trees. The collage is the latest in Simpson’s Riunite & Ice series, in which the same cutout appears in serial repetition, each time her head encapsulated by something preternatural and fey: paint black as squid-ink, a milk-colored moon, crystal shards, or clouds, with a ladder leading to where her shoulder might be, the woman her own skybound destination.
Simpson has long worked with hair and its profound intersection with identity. In “Wigs” (1994), 21 lithographs of braids, coils, locks, and silky waves cascade from a wall. In her set of 10 instant film images, “Stereo Styles” (1988), a young girl’s hair is braided, pinned, and swept into updos. There’s very little actual hair in any of the four collage series in Lorna Simpson Collages, which collects a total of 150 collages from 2011 to 2017; in addition to Riunite & Ice, there’s Ebony, Jet, and the latest, Earth & Sky. On every page, portraits of women cut from vintage Ebony and Jet advertisements smile and stare, coquettish or mid-daydream, their tresses painted and collaged into pools of color that spread onto the page like oil spills. Though we know their faces were once posed and designed to sell products to other black women, in Simpson’s hand, none of them are indebted to any particular identity or occupation. They’re multitudinous.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Simpson explained that her interest in found images came from “a discovery I made of these old Ebony magazines belonging to my grandmother. I found them really satisfying to look at, because they’re so contextual … For me, the images hearken back to my childhood, but are also a lens through which to see the past 50 years in American history.” There’s a real joy to be gleaned from the collages, the near-tenderness with which Simpson adorns her subjects. In “Earth & Sky #38” (2017), a woman’s bouffant has become a block of asphalt, and she gazes toward a honeyed amber rock. I know this because, in Earth & Sky, in which hair becomes stone, Simpson has left the captions or numerical codifications for each gem. “Earth & Sky #32” (2016) features a woman in a Grecian dress that doubles as a hood; it’s not her hair but her backdrop that’s crystallized and glowing (fluorite, actually).
In the Ebony series, the densest in the book, watercolor and ink is used so richly that the women are rendered pelagic deities, their hair black Medusa snakes, or electric-blue jellyfish, or flame-yellow coral. The images still seem wet, as if, upon opening the book, I was peeling apart Rorschach blots. As the pages progress, the faces get bigger; orange and purple crowns bloom like flowers. There are men, too (I counted 18), with pompadours and afros painted with ice cream scoop flourishes. Some wear sunglasses. Some are quite young. In Jet, a few women, their hair painted like feathered crowns, are paired with captions and tidbits from the magazines’ pages: “Where is third man in Till lynching?”; “The strange sit-in that changed a city.” They make clear another layer to Simpson’s process, sometimes racially charged, sometimes wholly abstract.
In the book’s introduction, the poet Elizabeth Alexander, in a format not unlike the collages to follow — dreamy and resolute — writes: “In Lorna Simpson’s collages … black women’s heads of hair are galaxies unto themselves, solar systems, moonscapes, volcanic interiors … It is sinuous and cloudy and fully alive … Watercolor is the perfect medium for Simpson here because of how it holds light and appears to be translucent. But it is also a wash, a shadow cast over what we cannot know in these women.”
Not being able to fully comprehend Simpson’s subjects is, at least here, key. They’re too complex, too bright, for that. As Alexander would have it, this speaks to the voluminous nature of the women themselves, and also to their universality. In Interview magazine, Simpson referred to the “prevailing assumption” that a work’s narrative is autobiographical if the subject is a woman, “which is limiting.” In another interview with the Art Hoe Collective, Simpson described a frequent question she’s asked: “‘What is it like to make work that has black content?’…When I get up in the mirror, I don’t look at black content. I look at myself.” To reference the self, devoid of any instances of “othering” from a myopic, inevitably white lens, is also to gain the freedom of omnipresence. Simpson is in these women (and men), though she’s always toed the line between autobiography and storytelling narrative, that space where the two collapse into each other. The binary between them is dissolvable and soluble, like paint.