New York

Lorna Simpson

Josh Baer Gallery

The strength of Lorna Simpson’s work is its ability to plumb states of passivity: images submit to text; anonymous female figures to labels announcing their servitude; politically and sexually charged contents to the formal constraints of cool sterilization. In comparison to the simplicity of her black and white series, the rich color, the props, and the florid, somewhat erotic texts of her recent large-scale Polaroids suggest a more complex narrativity. Yet Simpson’s facility for understatement remains, reinforcing the cataleptic drama of her work.

Rigidly posed, faces cropped out of the frame, physical expression reduced to hand signals reminiscent of those used by deaf mutes, the black women in Simpson’s photographs are defined through lack. Denied voice, mobility, and individual identity, their bodies speak for them through frozen pantomimes of subjugation, through poses showing how compliantly they follow instructions, through hands pointing to, but never caressing, body parts. Superimposed texts spell out their repressed traumas: words literally hold the body in place—a place in which it is objectified as a pathological specimen and dysfunctional sexual object. Language has the authority to name, to narrate, to define. The body is literally the backdrop against which language speaks, and the text, the frame through which our visual experience is regulated.

But here’s the old question: Is it language itself that speaks, or a community of users who speak through language? The chorus of voices that whisper, reflect, and recite Simpson’s texts belong to women, disembodied and invisible though they may be. And what they talk about incessantly—and so consistently that it seems the many are but one—are stories of penetration and possession. Lower Region (all works 1992) shows three frontal images of a woman’s torso clothed in a green knit dress. In each, she gestures—hands on hips, hands folded at the waist, and in the central panel hands flanking her pubic area and a gold-lettered text that reads: “during every examination bracing for the pain that never comes.” Similarly, in Self Possession, the red-gloved hands of a woman dressed in black frame both her womb and the words “is 9/10ths of the law.”

From one Polaroid to the next, variations on a theme, not of sexuality per se but of the sex act itself, unfold. In Bio, we read of the anxiety of surgery, anesthesia, and memory. In Landscape/Body Parts I and Landscape/Body Parts II respectively, a woman muses on the time that “she passed a sign for a town named Roscoe and remembered that’s what he called his dick”; and reflects that “the guide pointed to a rock formation called ‘The Mermaid’ and asked did it remind her of a vagina?” Possession, holding, keeping, clinging; fainting, collapsing, plunging, falling—the abundance of metaphors for sexual intercourse and anxiety that proliferate in these Polaroids are as rich, and as repressed, as those of Victorian literature.

Like mini-morality plays of female oppression, Simpson’s photographs link the discussion of sexism to racism through the black female protagonist. Accordingly, the antagonist is readily understood to be language, culture, and other manifestations of the P word—patriarchy. So much truth quickly becomes only so much decadent rhetoric: it’s all so safe and packaged that we should be suspicious. If Simpson’s capacity for subtlety, creates a quiet and sympathetic setting from which to consider female passivity, it also suggests that she takes the easy way out in responding to the question of who’s making us passive and why we submit Penetration and possession? Desire and fear? Doing it and having it done to us? These are perhaps the most critical items on the feminist agenda. To tell the story simply as a tale of indoctrination arid subjugation, to elicit sympathy and a bunch of nodding heads in recognition of that pitiable state, doesn’t even come close to addressing the issue at hand.

Jan Avgikos