PRINT September 2007


Identity Aesthetics

CAN ELEGANCE COEXIST WITH CRITIQUE? Aesthetics with politics? Material and formal intensiveness with sociocultural inquiry? My own answer would be a resounding “Yes.” But much contemporary art seems to answer “No.” Indeed, some recent shows appear to be wedded to the idea that intensive aesthetic labor undermines political intent—especially in work by minorities. The Brooklyn Museum’s recent exhibition “Global Feminisms,” for example, foregrounded contemporary work by women artists of all colors, ethnicities, and nationalities that emphasizes the reductive, the dystopian, the aesthetically indifferent, and/or the simply ugly.

I was reminded of these questions when I saw Lorna Simpson’s twenty-year survey this past spring at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Simpson, an African-American woman, was not included in “Global Feminisms,” but much of her work is located at the intersection of gender and race. Perhaps the Brooklyn curators found the persistent grace and cool shapeliness of her work cause for some misgiving. But I would like to argue that Simpson’s elusive play in the field of word-and-image ambiguity broaches issues of aesthetics and identity much more successfully than anything in the Brooklyn show.

Take, for example, a by-now-classic piece of 1989, Untitled (2 Necklines). Two circular black-and-white photographs show a black woman in a white shift, viewed from slightly above, from mouth to chest. Between the two prints is a vertical stack of ten black plaques with white lettering, which read (from top to bottom) RING, SURROUND, LASSO, NOOSE, EYE, AREOLA, HALO, CUFFS, COLLAR, LOOP; an eleventh, longer plaque is red with white lettering that enjoins FEEL THE GROUND SLIDING FROM UNDER YOU. Until I saw this work on the walls of the Whitney, I had always wondered whether these double photographs and this wordplay on the theme of circularity added up to anything more than a verging-on-meaningless effect of multiple meanings in the registers of race and gender, sex and skin color.

I have liked Simpson’s artwork since the 1980s, but liked it rather coolly, and of the early work, I preferred the Waterbearer, 1986, for its nuanced combination of lyricism and lingering unease, as well as the proliferating set of doubts occasioned by its text: SHE SAW HIM DISAPPEAR BY THE RIVER, THEY ASKED HER TO TELL WHAT HAPPENED, ONLY TO DISCOUNT HER MEMORY. What happened outside the frame of this beautifully, knowingly Raphaelesque image of a black woman in a white shift with disheveled hair, seen from behind against a very dark ground, emptying a silver pitcher with one graceful arm and a plastic jug with the other? A rape? An escape? A lynching? Who is this witness to an invisible event, who is herself invisible? A nineteenth-century slave or a twentieth-century citizen, whose citizenship still doesn’t count? The complex poignancy of those questions about what is unseen is enhanced, rather than undercut, by the stylish play with what is seen, including black skin, white shift, and silver pitcher (in which it matters that this is a black-and-white gelatin silver print).

I had been less certain that the same was true of the polysemous stylishness of 2 Necklines—until I saw it “in the flesh”: Suddenly, the play among the surfaces of “black” skin, “white” fabric, and “silver” print became vibrant, making me pause and seriously question what was black, what was white, what was gray or silver or in-between, and whether what I was seeing was “real” or not. (For several moments, what I knew to be silver print looked like it was really white fabric, and the texture of skin began to trade places with that of emulsion-coated paper.) And in turn, that ambivalence brought to life the multivalence of the words between the two circular frames, and their sliding between the states of noun and verb, between body and sex and their policing, and gave way to the bright red of the groundlessness of semiosis and point of view, and above all to the vividly colored vertigo of human desire. This is matter and thought working together, as it is the business of visual art to bring about, to have a real effect on a viewer who consists of a thinking mind in a sensing body, however that mind and body are gendered and raced.

Two of the directions in which Simpson has moved more recently are multiple-projection video installations and large, felt-paneled serigraphs. Both take up the earlier themes of race and gender and the earlier devices of ambi- and multivalence, the visual and the verbal (and now the tactile and the aural), the visible and the invisible, and the intertwining of the material and the imagistic levels of the visual sign. My favorite examples of her video work are the seven-screen installation Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty, 1997, and the two-screen installation Corridor, 2003. Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty is talky (at least, the women talk, while the men remain dumbly silent), and the lyricism of some of the silent screens is occasionally cut by the earthiness of what is said in the chatty ones—meanwhile, we have to infer a lot about what we do not see, namely the absent friends and lovers mentioned in the conversations we overhear in scenes showing women talking on the phone or to one another. Corridor is almost too elegant in its double-screen simultaneity of a lone woman dressed in nineteenth-century clothes moving about in a seventeenth-century house and another, clad in ’60s style, in a streamlined International Style dwelling; but its Vermeer-inspired beauty and its almost Jamesian sense of the spooky latency of what is unseen and unheard are what kept this viewer, at least, entranced. Indeed, it is precisely this atmosphere of hushed elegance that leads viewers to think about the advances made or not made between the Civil War and the civil rights movement and that also endows the female protagonist with a mysterious subjectivity.

Of the serigraphs, I find The Staircase, 1998, and Cloud, 2005, most striking. Both are whitely minimalist in their uninhabited formal grids, and very little remains of the race-and-gender intersection that is so consistently the theme of Simpson’s practice, although a vestige of these concerns is found in the felt text panel that accompanies the titular image of The Staircase, describing an unseen “she” who overhears comings and goings on the stairs. Cloud relates evocatively to the single-projection video installation Cloudscape, 2004, in which a man whistles amid a cloud of smoke that swirls around him; in Cloud, all that lingers is the jazz-club smokiness. A viewer attentive to the echoes of previous work will also note the serigraphs’ connection to the doubled materiality of the lithographed felt Wigs of 1994.

What is compelling about The Staircase and Cloud and other works like them is what is absent, what hovers about their reduction to almost nothing to see, and the increasingly ghostlike form of their felt-softened and -muffled photographic traces. For many, perhaps, these reductions might seem like an unacceptable retreat to the formal and the enigmatic. For me, however, they mine what is most intelligent and intensive about Simpson’s work, and they open up new possibilities for the politics of the aesthetic sphere, and for the sphinxlike art of the enigma, posing its riddles about the balance of the differentiated and the shared, the knowable and the unknowable, in all varieties of human relation.

In short, I admire what seems to be Simpson’s counterview to a prevailing idea, nourished by many strands of “theory” in the academy and by garden-variety “identity politics” in and outside of the academy alike, namely, that aesthetic engagement amounts to bad faith. On the contrary, the bad faith lies in the easy conventionality with which the antiaesthetic view aligns itself with the critical and the subversive. Bravo to artists of any affiliation whose work does not fall in line with such unthinking carelessness. It is time to think anew about such matters: about what “identity” is, and what “aesthetics” can do with it. Good to know I am not alone in thinking so.

Carol Armstrong is professor of art history at Yale University.