Lorna Simpson’s midcareer retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art begins in 1985, the year Simpson completed her MFA at UC San Diego, with a piece that lays the groundwork for much of the rest of the show and epitomizes many of its frustrations. Titled Gestures/Reenactments, the work involves six large photographs depicting the muscular torso of a black male figure in a crisp white T-shirt, accompanied by a series of black placards bearing enigmatic fragments of white text. The presence of the figure, one of only a few male subjects to appear in all of the show’s roughly two dozen photographic works, is charged with ambivalence. Simpson’s camera feels both covetous and shy, consuming his physique while cropping his face. He shifts warily about the frame as if vaguely uneasy with the terms of the relationship, unwilling to give the camera (and thus his audience) a clear view. In two of the pictures, he’s got his back turned; in two others, he’s stepping off the right edge of the picture. In a fifth, he angles toward the camera, hands on hips, but still hugs the edge of the frame. Only in the sixth shot does he face the viewer squarely, but with both arms crossed in a gesture of defiance.

If you know Simpson’s work, you’ll recognize many of her signature elements: the neutral space, the plainly clothed black figure, the elliptical text, the clean finish. She brings them together here with an air of intelligence and self-assurance that makes it easy to understand how she caught the art world’s attention so early. At 25 years old, she clearly had her game down, and her clarity of vision helped to shape an art-historical moment. One of a generation that shifted the discourse of contemporary art through rigorous emphasis on issues of race, gender, sexuality and, in the words of many a grad-seminar syllabus, the politics of representation, she makes work that aims to illuminate the historical forces underlying prevalent social and artistic assumptions — and to unravel the habits and conditions that inform them.

When the figure in Gestures/Reenactments squares his shoulders and crosses his arms, he (which is to say, Simpson) is challenging you to call up what you know, surmise, fantasize and fear young, black masculinity to be, to confront your expectations and deal with your reactions accordingly. His restraint, then, is a form of resistance. He’s not going to flatter your attention with any feel-good personal revelation; he’s not giving anything up.

The problem, more apparent in this type of survey than it would be in any one individual work, is that the accumulated effect of all this arm-crossing resistance is frankly rather wearying. The interplay of seduction and refusal is a defining element throughout Simpson’s oeuvre and can produce a tantalizing tension, particularly in this first piece, where even the artist herself appears on the verge of succumbing to the luscious photogenicity of her subject’s body. From here on out, however, the scale tips ever more toward refusal, eventually to the point of her removing the body altogether in works that focus on surrogate objects like wigs and shoes and in landscapes that portray spaces where one imagines bodies to have been (wooded parks, an empty stairwell and so on). It’s not that Simpson denies the seductive qualities; indeed, she cultivates the beauty of both the body and the photograph quite rigorously. But it’s so precise and pointed a beauty that it comes to seem manipulative: employed to attract and then implicate the eye rather than to feed, educate or reward it. She wants you to look, but don’t expect anything in return.

There are certainly valid reasons for this. Between colonialism, fascism, military propaganda, the exploitation of women, the glamorization of violence, the stimulation of materialism, and all the other great modern crimes that the camera has helped to perpetuate, photography has a lot to atone for. One false step in this treacherous territory and even the most vigilant politically minded photographer can send a work veering into the very realm she’s attempting to condemn, particularly where race and gender are concerned. Simpson’s restraint is a smart, calculated and perhaps prudent response to a complicated mess of issues, and for that reason plays particularly well in academic circles, in critical essays, in catalogs and in group shows. In person, however, with works assembled in this quantity, the approach just begins to feel aloof. Or worse, it begins to feel off-puttingly exclusive, dividing those who decide they’re in on the joke from those who are left dutifully pondering their own probably well-intentioned expectations, while making little effort to attract those who really should be questioning their expectations.

Tucked into the first few pages of Okwui Enwezor’s essay in the show’s catalog is a curious and revealing little prologue: a handful of documentary-style photographs that Simpson made in Morocco, Sicily and around New York City when she was about 20, five years before Gestures/Reenactments. Enwezor includes the pictures by way of explaining Simpson’s subsequent rejection of the documentary approach in favor of the conceptual mode espoused by UCSD mentors like Eleanor Antin and Allan Kaprow, and thus shows the early work relatively little sympathy. They’re not particularly brilliant photographs, it’s true, but they’re appealing photographs, and there’s one in particular I keep coming back to: a cheerful familial scene involving half a dozen Sicilian women of various ages gathered on an outdoor patio. Two of the women are struggling playfully over what looks like a shampoo bottle, and all the women are laughing. One, near the right edge of the frame, also happens to be looking at the camera, and it’s she who keeps catching me. The expression on her face is as simple a burst of pleasure as you could imagine: Spontaneous, credulous and ephemeral, it reveals nothing about her identity, her past, her family or her culture, nothing about history or race or the status of women in her community or anywhere else — but it’s generous, and in the context of an exhibition that seems to be perpetually turning its back on the viewer, that generosity jumps off the page like fireworks.

There are scores of assumptions such a smile might coax one into making about this young woman — personality, character, ethnicity. Simpson probably made a number of them herself when she took the picture, and perhaps it made her a little uncomfortable. Identification can be a dangerous thing. It is also, however — one realizes when the possibility is taken away — an extremely important thing, fundamental to the experience of art. In abandoning this documentary mode, and not just complicating but essentially eradicating the possibility for identification in her subsequent conceptual work, Simpson effectively disabled one of her — and art’s — most effective tools. You can only be reminded so often of what you don’t know, what you’re not appreciating and what you can’t understand before you start grasping for what you can. In demanding so much while offering so little, Simpson runs the risk of alienating those who most stand to benefit.

LORNA SIMPSON | MOCA, 250 S. Grand. Ave., downtown | Through July 10

LA Weekly