ArtReviewsWeekend

Lorna Simpson’s Cut-Up Portraits Evoke the Complexity of Identity

Composed of photographs culled from vintage Ebony magazines, the faces in these collages are reconstructed into new selves.

Lorna Simpson , “Walk with me” (2020), collage on paper, 29 3/8 x 22 1/2 inches (all images © Lorna Simpson, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photos by James Wang)

Fragmentation is at the heart of Lorna Simpson’s new exhibition, Give Me Some Moments, which is currently up at Hauser & Wirth’s online viewing room. The show presents the latest pieces in Simpson’s dynamic collage practice. “The notion of fragmentation, especially of the body, is prevalent in our culture, and it’s reflected in my works,” she’s quoted on the exhibition page. “We’re fragmented not only in terms of how society regulates our bodies but in the way we think about ourselves.” Collage may be the ideal medium for depicting such fragmentation: figures are physically cut apart and recomposed into new realities. Simpson’s collages emphasize not just the deconstruction, but also how the process of stitching the images back together sparks new aesthetic and conceptual associations.

In “Walk with me” (2020), pearls drape in luxurious loops around the necks of three Black women posed for a photograph. Their winged eyeliner complements their neat, shiny 1950s bob haircuts. Each face is an amalgamation of photographs culled from vintage issues of Ebony magazine, reconstructed into a new self. Expressions are halved or doubled; they look both toward and away from the viewer. The result is a Cubist portrait in which multiple perspectives exist at once.

Since the mid-1980s, Simpson has been a vital, interdisciplinary force in the art world. Her early work featured striking black and white photographs juxtaposed with shards of text, evoking and confronting assumptions around race, sexuality, and gender — themes that have continued to permeate and inform all of her art. Throughout her lauded career, she has explored the conceptual and formal fragmentation of identity in a variety of mediums and modes ranging from split-screen films to atmospheric landscapes composed of layered paint, photos, and text.

In her Photobooth series spanning 2008 through 2014, she collected, framed, and arranged vintage pocket-sized pictures, magazine clippings, and drawings. In each piece, the assembled images are held together by a theme like “With hat” or “Pairs.” By playing with scale, she represents the relationship between the individual and the collective, and contrasts an expanse of time against discrete, fleeting moments. Who were these people? What are their stories? And how do they fit into a bigger picture? There is a resourcefulness and richness to this approach — preexisting materials bring their own history and cultural context to Simpson’s art, layering and deepening their meaning.

Around 2010, Simpson began sourcing collage images largely from old editions of the influential African American culture and politics magazines Ebony and Jet, collecting issues mostly circa the 1950s through ’70s, often focusing in on the advertisements for her subjects. Other artists including Ellen Gallagher, Theaster Gates, and Romare Bearden have also incorporated pictures from these pages into their work as a way to represent and recontextualize the imagery and experience of Black Americans. Unlike Bearden and Gates’ larger-scale works, though, most of Simpson’s new collages are under 20 inches tall or wide and mounted on gray paper with deckled edges, heightening the sense of intimacy that often haloes personal artifacts or heirlooms. These images also differ from the Photobooth series in that they were staged as advertisements or editorials, and created to be reproduced; Simpson’s collages make the images of these women precious and personal once more.

Lorna Simpson, “Flames” (2019), found photograph and collage on paper, 2 framed collages, 19 x 14 3/16 inches, installation dimensions variable

It can be difficult to limit Simpson’s work to a single meaning, but this ambiguity is intentional. “People really desire a narrative; they want to see a fully formed, closed, succinct message. I’ve always in some way avoided a very closed, concise narrative,” Simpson said in an interview with Brooklyn Rail last year. By resisting a neat story, she creates room for nuance and imagination. Take “Flames” (2019), a duo of collages, each of which portrays a woman’s face spliced with imagery of blazing fires. Their expressions are calm, pleasant even. Perhaps Simpson is portraying the pressure imposed on Black women to maintain composure, even as they bear the weight of systemic racism (the fire representing the very real danger of an unjust society). At the same time, the fire could be understood as a metaphor for the external manifestation of an internal emotion; or, it could represent the raging wildfires, signaling the ongoing climate catastrophe. Or, maybe the fires should be seen as an act of freedom or rebellion — a burning of prejudiced assumptions about what a Black woman could do or be. The ambiguity and tension between their expressions and the environment invites an array of interpretations.

Lorna Simpson, *Adornment (2020), found photograph and collage on paper, 7 framed collages, 19 3/8 x 15 inches, installation dimensions variable

In one of the seven collages that comprise “*Adornment” (2020), a woman slyly eyes the camera, her head mounted on the spindly skeleton of an unidentified creature. Simpson ties this piece to the idea of extinction: “It’s my way of asking: who are we, and what will we become?” It can also be read as a stark portrayal of how American society has inflicted and reproduced the fragmentation of non-white bodies and identities over centuries; in a recent review in 4Columns, critic Aruna D’Souza associates Simpson’s work with the racist “histories of museological display that consigned Africanness to the realm of natural history.” The collages, D’Souza explains, represent the ongoing impact of a racist society on Black women throughout time: “How to see oneself fully and with love when the world of ideas and representations is so saturated with racist assumptions?”

Even as her work deftly addresses race and gender, Simpson resists limiting it to these categories. “Just as the Caucasian figure in contemporary art is seen as universal,” she has said, “the black figure of African descent should be, too.” What she is after is justice in representation — access to the same range of emotions and internal concerns as white society projects upon white bodies. As Teju Cole elucidated in the New York Times Magazine in 2018, to view Simpson’s work exclusively through the lens of racial and gender identity would be to miss out on the emotional and conceptual complexity and breadth that she offers.

Lorna Simpson, “Lyra night sky styled in NYC” (2020), collage on paper, 17 15/16 x 13 11/16 inches

Fragmentation in Simpson’s collages encompasses both the breaking down — of imagery, of bodies, of expectations—and the potential for renewal. “Lyra night sky styled in NYC” (2020) is one of Simpson’s simpler collages, created while under quarantine; the piece extends Simpson’s ongoing fascination with hair as a marker of identity, empowerment, and self-expression. In it, an image of a woman’s face from a wig advertisement remains untouched except for her hair, in whose beehive shape Simpson has inserted a vintage navy blue map of the constellations, speckled with stars. Stargazing represents both the study of the past — the light from stars taking ages to reach the earth — and a spiritual reaching towards the future. In Simpson’s depiction, hair embodies this sense of timelessness and interwoven possibility. The woman holds our gaze. Above her, the universe expands.

Lorna Simpson: Give Me Some Moments is currently online at Hauser & Wirth. 

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