New York

Lorna Simpson

Salon 94 | Freemans

One intriguing aspect of midcareer retrospectives is that they typically herald a new phase in an artist’s practice, a reinvention. Take for example Lorna Simpson, who recently, a year and a half after her mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art, had a two-part exhibition at Salon 94. Marking a significant shift from her large-scale photographs juxtaposing figure and text, her new work, including two series of drawings, imparts an intimacy and directness underpinned by the seminal themes of her practice: race and gender. While her latest offerings continue to blend formal and conceptual approaches in order to explore symbolic systems, they do so through fluid experimentation, at times nearing abstraction.

The uptown gallery featured Photo Booth (all works 2008), an installation interspersing fifty found black-and-white photo-booth portraits—images of poised black men from the 1940s—with fifty inkblots on paper. On first look, the forms recall both Rorschach images and the glued paper remains on the flip sides of pictures ripped from photo albums. On closer inspection, however, the abstract washes appear as mysterious voids, perhaps performing a metaphoric “blacking out” of history or a slow, methodical erasure of an archive. This open-ended inkblot motif extends to an elegant series of drawings, each depicting a woman with her head turned away from the viewer. Lining a foyer, an alcove, a regal staircase, and two walls of the main gallery, the pictures showcase a plethora of attractive hairstyles—from the beehive to the bouffant to the bob—and daintily rendered napes of necks, emphasizing difference over unity. These works evoke Simpson’s earlier photographs of black women with averted gazes and the floating lithographed wigs on felt in her installation Wigs, 1994. The bountiful selection demonstrated Simpson’s process of relearning how to draw, after nearly three decades of taking pictures, and a desire not to overedit.

While some semblance of attractiveness was on display uptown, the mood downtown was much more grotesque. Here Simpson’s sensitive use of graphite and ink was redirected into unsettling depictions of the American “war on terror.” Seventeen of her “Interrogation Drawings,” which are based on images of Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and Iraq, were lined up on a single wall. Made on sheets of pastel-colored graph paper, these drawings of interrogation rooms, prisoners, cells, and torture devices exude a haunting magnetism, bringing to mind Susan Sontag’s study of wartime images in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Like Sontag, Simpson engages aesthetics and ethics, but her drawings eschew didacticism or any particular political stance. They are instead rooted in ambiguity, seeking to question the power of images and their mass circulation rather than the mechanics of making powerful images.

Adjacent to these drawings, Simpson’s video Long Slow War created a dialectic in the gallery between historical spectatorship and modern cruelty. The work pairs Thomas Edison’s silent film of two trains crashing head-on, Railroad Smash-up, with a black-and-white film of fireworks exploding. The sound track, slowed-down pops and bangs that sound like dreadful moans, correlated eerily with the nearby drawings. Pivoting between beauty and brutality, Simpson’s new works show she is taking stock of her past, embracing change in the present, and experimenting with future possibilities.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

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