by BRITTANY JULIOUS
I imagine Lorna Simpson's days are not filled with the sort of thoughts that occasionally plague my own. She is a mother and an artist. The execution of her ideas is the catharsis needed when confronting the world. I imagine she thinks clearly of the world and sees it for what it is. Lorna does not ask why; she asks how. It is not a question of knowing, but rather a question of explanation. I ask why things are the way they are. She says, this is the way things are the way they are.
I spent Tuesday afternoons in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, thinking about what was to come next. It was the summer after my college graduation and I was underemployed and soaking up the last days of independence in the city before moving home.
There she was, part of a broader constellation. She was there all summer on the third floor and I could not forget her words not of wisdom, but of validity. The truth of Lorna Simpson’s art is not that it is too painful to understand, but that these things - the struggle for personhood, violence, femininity, feminism, and the black female body - were of importance and of reality.
When we talk of the "black struggle," we talk of the black male struggle. There is no differentiation between man and woman in black racial politics. We treat blackness as all-encompassing. Variations of lived experience are irrelevant. Differing narratives (of life black and male vs life black and female) are too complicated for the majority. But she knew of the reality, that our experiences are colored and multifaceted, that our lives are insectionally-bound two steps below what is seen as most vital or critical.
Lorna's most provocative works don't rely solely on the body. The body can tell much, but it is the black woman's body that was born to tell everything. Skin is colored with history, curves are exaggerated and hypersexualized. There is also the nose. There are also the lips, too full. Sexual, not sensual. Meant for the pleasure of others, inhabiting a purpose beyond the body of their owner and instead answering for lust and lechery. There are the eyes, absorbing the world from a young age, quickly and bitingly.
In one of her earlier installations, below a photographic work are the words, “She was no more exotic than the sparse room she posed in.”
I began to write this down and saw I instead wrote, “She was more exotic than...” I went to exoticism first, feeling the subjugation of the body was to be Lorna’s first directive. The phrase appears in Screen No. 4, an installation of gelatin silver prints on wooden accordion screens. I let my everyday play a part in shaping the idea of Lorna’s work. Sometimes these ideas are right, but more often, she rejects the complacency of expectations. She was not exotic. She was no more exotic. It is you, that other person, that assumes otherwise.
Like most of her figures, she is wearing white. We do not see her head nor her face. We never do. That is not what it is important. But we do see the skin – deep, rich, brown – and we do see the white, a perfect contrast. Sometimes, the white acts as a means of inscribing a different narrative to her subjects. These are angelic figures. They are pure and good and true, even if you can’t believe it.
The words too are familiar to my lived experience and to the lived experience of many women around me. These white blouses and dresses and other clothing affirm the purity of these statements. Lorna is not being provocative. She is being true. Lorna is not trying to just get a rise out of the viewer. She is telling you that this is as true as a clean white shirt, a crisp piece of clothing and also the “value” of the absence of color. Take this as best as you can. Take this and know that it comes from a place of reality.
In Three Seated Figures, she wrote, “her story/each time they looked for proof.”
In Figure, she wrote, “figured the worst/figured legality had nothing to do with it/figured she was suspect/figured there would be no reaction.”
In Square Deal, she wrote, “That story doesn’t square with yours, try and square the two.”
Lorna refines her words up to the last moment, which is why they complement the images, but often stay with the viewer much longer than the image. Memory is tied to strong visuals, moments in real life that were tangible and seemingly never ending. Words can resonate much more deeply. Words are universal. Phrases help draw parallels to our own lives and the lives of others around us. I can potentially relate to the image I see before me, the reflection of a life that is not like my own. I can most certainly relate to clean and exact diction. When there are no characters, I am left to insert myself into the story.
In Untitled (A Lie is Not a Shelter), she wrote, “a lie is not a shelter/discrimination is not protection/isolation is not a remedy/a promise is not a prophylactic.”
What are the things we tell ourselves to make sense of the world? A lie is not a shelter. A lie is not cover from the truth. A lie does not make up for what is not there. Discrimination is not protection. Discrimination is not safety, is not cover, is not security.
This was the first Lorna Simpson work I remembered vividly long after first seeing it. I saved the image, kept it safe on my desktop as a reminder. A lie is not a shelter. My sophomore year of college, I began to see a therapist and at the end of the year, I assumed I was cured. When I thought of change of the mind, I thought of a completeness that came not unlike the end of a class or the end of a semester. I’ve gotten as far as I need to go and that is that, I used to think. Four years later, I began to see another therapist.
The year after my college graduation, I worked at the museum. Many days were spent in front of the computer, but some were not. If one were to ask me what I did during the day, I would not know what to say. There was talking and emailing and handshaking and site visiting. None of that feels succinct or accurate. What I remember most is that, like with any job, I needed a break and I took those breaks a floor or two below our offices in the building. Those breaks were spent in the galleries, wandering from room to room, aimless of the lost seconds and minutes and hours spent surrounded by mini mazes and viscously-rich paintings, multi-colored light installations and light, airy mobiles. I lack that time now. I don’t work in that kind of environment now, and images on the screen, while temporarily emotionally valuable, lack the strength of seeing something in person. I could consume Lorna in heavy doses. I stood as close to her works as possible. That was me, learning. And now I take it all in and hope it has even a fraction of the same effect.
I like that her subjects’ hair is a little wild. Who are these Black women who wrap their relaxed hair at night and look fresh and beautiful in the morning? I look nothing like that. I am strong like this woman, but my hair is a little real. I am vulnerable in physicality. I am not “on.”
I love that she (and her characters) straddle two worlds. In one work, a woman’s dress is clean, but something is amiss. She balances too different containers of water: one plastic and flimsy, one steady and metal. Or rather, one cheap and unassuming, one valuable and classic. In another work, she sits, hands placed to the side. Every image looks the same, but a closer examination reveals levels of strength in one shot and levels of vulnerability in another. The hands are calm, and then they’re sturdy, and then they’re firmly grasping.
In my writing, I vaguely talked about my obsession with the body, with its machinations, with its changes and the struggle for control. It was a way for me to work around the truth of my own assault. These were lies of omission. There was a truth that I did not want to touch. There was a truth that I saw and did not feel safe claiming. These lies were not shelter for what I knew to be true, what I struggled with internally for more than a decade. A lie is not a shelter and Lorna’s work speaks to the mind because her work comes from the mind. She creates what she knows. Her truths are clear because the truth is real and valid.
I write about the connection to Lorna’s work and the Black female experience because that is what I know. I wanted to write that her ideas are bigger than that specific experience, but that derails from the universalities and commonalities in the way we live. Not all things are the same, but many are. What has always stuck out to me in Lorna’s work is the struggle to be heard. Many works tell of discussion and dismissal. It is not that there are two sides to every story, but that there is the side to value and the side to dismiss. There is the side to understand and the side to argue against. There is what can only and most certainly be true, and there is the rest.
My initial instincts are to go to what is worse in my own history in relation to what I read in her works, but I realize now that this struggle of the voice and the struggle of perception is one that builds from the youngest of ages and from the most miniscule of situations. I think about the desire to express my ideas at work. I think about chastisements of being too “combative,” too “outspoken,” too “crazy,” or too “hostile.” I think about the Sweetie’s and Honey’s and Girl’s of the world. I realize this desire to say something and have it matter, to say something and have it validated with worth and importance and the supposition of truth is bigger than I ever imagined. These feelings and struggles and frustrations are everywhere. They infiltrate everything. They are everything.
Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about six months of sequins and upcycling. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
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