For three decades, Lorna Simpson’s work across photography, film and video, painting, drawing, and sculpture has addressed the fractured nature of representation of both women and people of color — and especially women of color — in our cultural landscape. But perhaps it is her agile and affecting work in found-image collage that is best equipped to explore what history can teach us in the current moment.
The metaphoric and material dimensions of collage — work made by literally taking apart the past and reassembling it into empathetic contemporary expressions — are especially salient at a moment threatening societal collapse and the very real potential for its reinvention. And more than that, the collages in Simpson’s new online exhibition Give Me Some Moments were all made in the past several months, some in the past several weeks, and are very much steeped in the condition of fracture in which global society is currently immersed.
Let’s back up a bit, to June of 2019, when Simpson finally embraced a truly bi-coastal lifestyle. After years of constant travel to Los Angeles from her New York base, her daughter’s college graduation sparked ideas about transition and what a different texture for her own life might look like. “About a year ago I started thinking about having a little place of my own here,” Simpson tells the L.A. Weekly, “and what it would mean to commit to living bi-coastally. I truly do travel a lot for work, but I thought about doing things as an intentional respite instead.”
Since June she would spend a few weeks in each place, casually going back and forth. But at this point, Simpson has been in Los Angeles since January. She had a show planned for March of this year at Hauser & Wirth Hong Kong which was, of course, canceled — though it was just announced as rescheduled to open there on June 16, as their restrictions are easing. Many of the works in the new online presentation were made for that show — except for three particularly captivating works which were made in Los Angeles, including since the stay home orders were announced.
But in truth, all of the work speaks to conditions of both fear and political strife — largely because they were made with their destination in Hong Kong top of mind. Hong Kong, remember, endured months of very intense civic protests last year, as well as being part of the earliest wave of outbreaks and lockdown measures. “I had done about 60 collages for the show that was postponed,” Simpson says. “And some of those already demonstrated many of the same concerns we now have today here.”
Works like the two “Flames” collages from 2019 are instant archetypes of the current mood, setting elegant, fresh black-and-white portraits of impeccably groomed black women against a backdrop of burning buildings. The juxtaposition of societal niceties with rampant destruction is meme-ready; but the nuances of stylized commercial representation of women of color juxtaposed with the realities of both disproportionate suffering and injustice in actual society, along with black women’s heroic but underappreciated efforts in the political sphere, is so much more than witty.
The three newest works — “Walk with me,” “Lyra night sky styled in NYC,” and “Solar glare” were all made in Los Angeles since January, and the effects on both her consciousness and subconscious creative impulses are apparent. “‘Walk with me’ was the first piece I made in Los Angeles,” she tells us. “It’s about entanglement, and was made at the start of my L.A. experiences but also toward the end of my Hong Kong experiences. We are all affected, no one can ignore this.” And indeed this new context for the viewing of even these very recent works reflects how quickly and thoroughly we are all already changed, and perhaps as well, the capacity of art to be a metric of that change.
“I texted my friend a snap of ‘Lyra’ when I was making it,” Simpson recalls. “And she said that exact constellation was visible in the night sky right then, which I hadn’t realized, and furthermore it belongs to the Corona Borealis system, so…and also, you know, that kind of immediacy and responses from friends is not typical for me, that’s new.”
As for the studio itself, Simpson says she’s working with a “pretty good set up” at least in terms of making collages. “They are of course easier to work on in a small space. I have two small rooms to work out of, one with a big table and windows,” and what she calls a treehouse kind of energy. “And I have about 200 Ebony and Jet magazines here in Los Angeles, which is still just a fraction of what I have in New York. I sort of work intuitively with whatever is on the table today. My approach at any time is to allow the subconscious to play, to not edit myself, allowing free associations. Our conscious minds are somewhat overwhelmed, and it’s important to me to nurture and stay connected to the subconscious.”
To that end, like a lot of us, Simpson has also begun paying attention to her dreams — actually, she’s begun dreaming in the first place. “I have never dreamed,” she says. “But now I wake up and record it to a voice memo first thing, maybe three or four times a week. I’m horrified by the news. Besides the outrage and the way it affects POC disproportionately, I wonder if the country is being brought to its knees by these mechanisms of hate ramping back up — and whether this is a condition of life in the U.S. now. So I’m experiencing all that and taking it in. But the work is always there when I’m ready.”
Give Me Some Moments is now available online, along with a short exhibition trailer and a curated Spotify playlist called “Listening to Jason Moran” which explores the collaboration and mutual inspiration between Simpson and this renowned composer. hauserwirth.com.