Los Angeles

Lorna Simpson

In the conclusion of his catalogue essay for Lorna Simpson’s recent survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Okwui Enwezor writes: “A portrait of a black person hanging in a museum is usually disturbing to viewers.” A strange claim. It’s not just Enwezor’s haunted syntax (is it a portrait of a black person, a portrait of a black person hanged, or the conflation of both that disturbs?) that’s problematic, it’s that—in an era when homage is paid to Jean-Michel Basquiat in the form of a limited-edition Reebok sneaker (the “Reebopper”)—his assertion seems a sweeping generalization at best.

Enwezor’s claim is built on what he calls Simpson’s “iconography of the racial sublime,” but in most of her work it is more a racial unconscious and a set of uninterrogated racial fantasies that are performed, in which identity has a straightforward, indexical relation to a body photographed or filmed. Rarely venturing beyond a palette of black and white or grisaille, Simpson literalizes the signifiers of race. The restricted color scheme suggests not the invocation of a sublime but a nostalgia for the look of Conceptualism: her pious grids and photo and text pieces remain proper stylizations, suggesting a paradoxical ahistoricity that finds its apotheosis in the pristine yet “old-timey” look of Wigs, 1994, and Corridor, 2003.

In Corridor, a two-channel video projection, artist Wangechi Mutu plays two roles—wearing antebellum attire in one, soigné ’60s dress in the other—and idles in various contemplative poses. Simpson has stated that “Corridor opposes two important historical dates in American history, 1860 and 1960, to reflect upon the state of things at those crucial points and also to foreground what might be the psychological disposition of the characters portrayed because nothing specific happens at the moment they are portrayed.” But what is the psychology of nothing happening, and how does it reflect the state of things at those dates? How and why should any of this relate to the here and now? And can depictions of silent waiting really critique the history of passivity that is too snugly aligned with the feminine? In place of consequence, Simpson delivers tastefulness and high production values. While critic Hilton Als would situate her as Jean-Luc Godard’s protégée, a more convincing comparison would be to Todd Haynes’s Corridor as a response to Far from Heaven, 2002: Both filmmakers mistake art direction for art, rejecting today for the past of pastiche.

While not hoping for confession, I would have expected, in a selection of thirty-some photographs and films recognized—as curator Helaine Posner states—“for their high level of conceptual sophistication and social awareness,” not to mention their earnest poeticism, at least a glimmer of personal risk. Instead there are forlorn landscapes, actors acting moody, and the seamless as a device producing ahistoricism. Simpson’s mid-’90s “Public Sex” murals generally pack little heat, but in The Rock, 1995, a small, felt text panel relays a sequence from one of John Waters’s greatest films and suggests what could have been: “Female Trouble: Divine has just left home after an argument over a Christmas gift, and storms out of the house. She is picked up on the highway by an auto-mechanic (played by Divine). They approach a wooded area and have frantic sex on a mattress, by the side of the road.”

What’s exciting about the citation is its departure from the monotone of Simpson’s own project and pertinence to everything she tries to image about the feminine troubling the world. What’s depressing is her lack of acknowledgment of its humor. Waters presents someone fucking him- and/or herself, a sequence more theoretically complicated and outrageous than anything, sadly, Simpson dares. A self other to itself potentially sexualizes difference—of gender, class, and race. This rupture is Waters’s scholar’s rock, an aid for meditating on the social formation of identity in relation to history’s burlesque and the rough landscapes of desire.

Bruce Hainley