In the poem “Ode to Meaning” by Robert Pinsky, the speaker traverses the sundry terrains in which meaning might be found and sifts through the many guises it might take on. What a reader has to conclude coming to the end of the poem, is that meaning is a fugitive thing, sometimes here, and sometimes there, winking in and out of existence, and perhaps most recognizable in the moments when it is entangled with the signifiers it has long been associated with: written language, human faces.
The exhibition of Lorna Simpson’s paintings on view at Hauser and Wirth, Lorna Simpson. Darkening, opens with a poem printed on the wall near the gallery’s entrance — this one by Robin Coste Lewis — but I prefer the Pinsky ode as a pilot through the show. Pinksy writes: “You not in the words, not even / Between the words, but a torsion, / A cleavage, a stirring. / You stirring even in the arctic ice.” And the paintings here made by Simpson of ink and gesso are glacial, in their scale (some paintings are nine feet high) and in their placidity — here is an icy desert in which if anything does move, it does so at a pace that is imperceptible to my eyes. The landscapes depicted here are deep, dark blue, craggy hills of ice rucked and seamed and then pocked with the night sky. In “Darkened” (2018) it all roils together: the sky made of Prussian blue, the glacier with ultramarine recesses, a lighter blue where the ice tips closer to the light and brings the frost and sky almost into harmony, and cobalt where the ink Simpson paints with has pooled into amorphous blotches. This only describes the part of the painting above the water line. Below, there is a similar range of tonal exploration. And then interlaced with the ice and seawater, are thin, vertical strips of script spelling out bits and pieces of speech such as: “hit,” “act,” “out,” “lab,” “con.” The fragments are like a stammering or murmuring of sense shaking itself loose from the maelstrom of object meeting abstraction, of documents of exploration meeting painterly inference — all this stirring in the arctic ice.
In other pieces, “Specific Notation” and “Source Notes” (both 2019), the composition is centered on the faces of figures who read as Black women — gender and race as key signs from which we often draw interpersonal meaning despite these aspects existing, so to speak, above the water line, while the rest of our being (the deepest and most primal parts) lie submerged and unseen. And here is the torsion that the whole show hinges upon: between the deep and abiding logocentrism that Simpson has incisively exploited for most of her artistic career, and the elsewhere that these paintings take her to.
Simpson’s photographic work has always been exceptionally strong in demonstrating the taut relation between images of the Black woman’s body and language that pulls her body into politics, saga, elegy, and poetry. I think of her piece “Dividing Lines” (1989), which I saw in the 20/20 exhibition mounted in the Carnegie Museum of Art in fall of 2017. There, the color photograph of a Black woman’s back, from the shoulders up, appears to the viewer, but it’s the red text printed around the image that means to shape how I read this body: “silver lining; out of line; red lining; color line” and so on. The text historicizes a body that without it, might be read quite differently. And thus, Simpson shows what language can do: proclaim, fix in place, define, revise, affirm, recognize, delimit, undergird. But here in the dark, in a domain generally far from human habitation, language fades out like a radio signal slowly being lost.
But this fading away of language and the gendered, racialized figure does not mean that the quest for meaning is abandoned. Rather, it is taken up under novel terms. These brutal and brutally lovely landscapes suggest a further shore, one that to be reached, both the viewer and the artist have to negotiate their way by sight, by following the lead of colored pigment, hue, tone, shape, iridescence, and curiosity and then when finally alone, contemplating the vastness of these possibilities we come to know by feeling our way through.