New York

Lorna Simpson

Josh Baer Gallery

Treading the murky waters between (self)objectification and narcissism, Lorna Simpson offers something like an in absentia presence within the realm of the picture. The camera is there to be stubbornly refused, like the violative gaze of a stranger. Yet it is the artist who has set herself up as that stranger, unwilling to complete the gesture of (self)portraiture, an unwillingness reinforced by the cropped-out face and the overlays of text that seem designed to recode the body under observation. The image/text interplay seems to propose the following admonition: You cannot name me, and therefore you cannot anchor me to a predetermined social or psychological type.

In much of her past work, Simpson seemed to implicate the viewer as the purveyor of a social, cultural, sexual, or racial stereotype of black womanhood, and deployed the work as an instrument of confrontation through which we are solicited to observe the unraveling of our own fatal assumptions. Even though the work has remained somewhat free of a hard-lined didacticism, her highly mediated, abstracted mode of virtual (self)portraiture tends to invoke a schematic, archetypal image that could easily be misread as an emblem for all African-American women. The body is reworked as a social text that “speaks” through the disembodied, yet tacitly authoritative voice of the artist. In terms of strategies of authorship, Simpson wants to have her cake and eat it too. Ironically, the strength and weakness of Simpson’s work has always stemmed from the same place: a persuasive conceptual sensibility that exudes the look of formula.

Now, a coolly detached romanticism seems to have migrated into the artist’s work, most of which is preoccupied with some form of desire. Simpson’s photo-text constructions evoke fragmented diaristic entries—haunting souvenirs of situations and people, which cannot be completely recovered through the unreliable agencies of desire and memory; sensations of loss and absence prevail. The coupling of photography and text here reveals a basic gap between the impulse to express and the difficulty of finding the appropriate language for that expression.

In Time, 1993, 22 black and white photo-linen images of a hand grasping candles at different stages of burning is fronted by four stacks of engraved glass panels featuring almost invisible registrations of the same images, as well as text fragments that suggest the contemplation of temporality. A memento (mori?) for what might be understood as a romantic, not merely musical, interlude, Duet, 1993, is comprised of two black and white images of piano feet that mirror each other. Stack of Diaries, 1993, consists of a black and white photo (really a kind of photo-painting) of a stack of diary books; in front of this putative inventory of the written self has been placed a multileveled metal stand that holds stacked glass panels, with black-lettered text-fragments rendered in subtly distinct styles (bold script, italics, etc.) pressed into the glass suggesting an interplay of “voices” apparently extracted from longer entries. Encountering splintered phrases such as “within a year, the carefully maintained entries she made were maintained by him,” “depending on how difficult a period his writing,” and “as the time passed handwriting in his diary shifted from his to hers,” we are asked to reconstruct a situation which might have triggered such a confusion (or merging) of identities. For better or worse, this compels us to seek out the biographical dirt, the meat behind the poetics; but our desire is finally thwarted.

Visually elegant, yet somewhat irritating in their cloying ambiguity, Simpson’s new works endeavor to tease out layered meanings from the symbolic correspondences of word and image, but the most pronounced effect here is a not-so-unusual mix of dank sentimentality and barely sublimated nostalgia.

Joshua Decter