Real is a contentious word. What can be considered real or verified does not necessarily mean that it is recognized or acknowledged on a micro or macro level. There are many different ways to interrogate or locate a subject. One should take into account the lens by which we think of the idea of a subject.
Hauser & Wirth is pleased to present ‘Lorna Simpson. Darkening,’ the artist’s first solo exhibition with the gallery in New York. Debuting a suite of new large-scale paintings, alongside recent photographic collages and sculpture, the exhibition finds Simpson returning to and building upon themes and motifs at the center of her practice: explorations focused on the nature of representation, identity, gender, race, and history. For more than 30 years, Simpson’s powerful works have entangled viewers in an equivocal web of meaning, drawing upon techniques of collage through the use of found materials, often culled from the pages of vintage Jet and Ebony magazines. In ‘Darkening,’ Simpson continues to thread dichotomies of figuration and abstraction with vast and enthralling tableaux that subsume spliced photos and fragmented text, abstracted beyond comprehension. Equally arresting and poetic, the paintings engage viewers with layers of paradox, capturing the mystifying allure of an arctic landscape in inky washes of blacks, grays, and startling blues.
After graduation Simpson traveled to Europe and Africa, where she not only developed her skill at documentary photography but also began to wonder how she could expand beyond the limitations of the genre, which she felt offered a primarily voyeuristic experience for the artist and the viewer. While earning an M.F.A. (1985) at the University of California, San Diego, she began experimenting with new ways to present her ideas in photographs in order to engage the viewer. What emerged was what became her signature technique: photo-text, which involved including brief passages of text that were often superimposed on the photographs and introduced new levels of meaning to the images. The images themselves were now posed studio shots, characterized by the use of human subjects, usually African American women, whose faces were hidden or obscured.
Simpson attended the High School of Art and Design in New York City. As an undergraduate at the New York School of Visual Arts, she studied painting at first but switched to photography before receiving a B.F.A. (1982).
Simpson’s photography typically explored the perception of African American women in American culture. You’re Fine, You’re Hired (1988), using Polaroid prints framed in wood, depicted an African American woman lying on her side. To the left of the images was a list of terms relating to a physical exam; to the right, the words Secretarial and Position.
By the late 1980s Simpson’s work was being displayed in solo exhibitions. In 1990 she became the first African American woman to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, an international arts festival. By the mid-1990s, with her name firmly linked to photo-text, Simpson pushed in new directions to avoid what she characterized as a paralysis that could be created by outside expectations. While not abandoning photography, she turned her attention toward video installations. One such work, Corridor (2003), juxtaposed the stories of two African American women—an American Civil War-era runaway slave and a bored mid-20th-century housewife—and drew parallels between their lives of isolation.
Simpson debuted a different direction at the 2015 Venice Biennale, where she showed a series of multi-paneled paintings. The pieces, notably Three Figures (2014), featured manipulated photographs overlaid with ink and acrylic. She exhibited additional paintings at her galleries in subsequent years as well as sculptures and a series of collages titled Unanswerable (2018). The collages considered the representation of African American women by assembling photographs from vintage Jet and Ebony magazines to create absurd juxtapositions.
Among Simpson’s awards and honors were a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1985) and the Whitney Museum American Art Award (2001). In 2007 her work was featured in a 20-year retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City.