Photographer and multimedia artist Lorna Simpson established her career by producing art centered on the Black female experience reflective of the cultural environment of the moment and the past.
Lorna Simpson’s Early Years
A native New Yorker born in Brooklyn, Lorna Simpson was exposed to the arts and culture scene that was prevalent throughout the city in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Simpson had numerous opportunities to attend plays, museums, concerts, and dance performances throughout her childhood and beyond.
Her passion for the arts carried into her secondary education as she attended the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. During this time, Simpson also spent her summers in Chicago, taking courses at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Following her graduation, Simpson traveled to Europe, Africa, and across the United States where she continued to practice her art and developed her skills in documentary photography. Her travels gave her a source of inspiration to expand her work into graphic design. The use of graphic design allowed her to challenge and engage the viewer by adding more dimension to her works moving forward.
After her travels, she studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting. Following her BFA, she continued her education by obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree in visual arts from the University of California. During this time, Simpson honed her signature style of “photo-text” by adding graphic text to studio portraits.
Her photographic images evolved into posed studio shots using human subjects, usually Black women with their faces hidden or obscured. Simpson also added text introducing new levels of meaning to each photograph. The basis of her work shifted to analyzing and critiquing the unique discrimination and stereotypes that Black women have historically faced at the intersection of race and gender.
The Beginning of Simpson’s Career
By the time Lorna Simpson graduated with her Master of Fine Arts in 1985, she was already considered a pioneer of conceptual photography. In the mid-1980s her name became familiar in the art world for her large-scale photograph-and-text works that challenged the narrow, conventional views of gender, identity, culture, history, and memory.
An early piece of art that gained public attention was the photographic series, “Twenty Questions (A Sampler)” in 1986. The work consisted of four monochrome photographs of a woman’s portrait taken from behind. In the series, Simpson used both the photograph and added text to explore the importance of image in contemporary society.
The 1990s is considered Simpson’s career-defining decade as she was one of the first African-American women to be included in the Venice Biennale. Her status also grew to new heights as she had her first solo exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1990. The solo exhibition kicked off her career and gave her the opportunity for a series of international residencies and displays.
One of Simpson’s most celebrated works is “The Waterbearer” (1986). In this ground-breaking piece, Simpson combined the documentary photographs of a young Black woman pouring water with graphic text to add more to the story.
The “Waterbearer” portrays a woman in a loose-fitting dress which fails to reveal any indication of the woman’s figure. According to critics, this was meant to deliberately show the significance of the “politics of respectability.” In other words, there were politics in many Black communities that policed the expression of sexuality in Black women.
The feelings of authority and control are juxtaposed with the text that follows the photograph. The text on the photo states, “She saw him disappear by the river. They asked her to tell what happened, only to discount her memory.”
The beginning of the text indicates a woman narrating her story but, by the end of the text, she is denied the ability to complete it. As a result, “The Waterbearer” shows that within the Black experience, stories are often incomplete.
Another highly celebrated piece is “Simpsons Wigs” (1994). The piece illustrates different hairstyles with anecdotes relating to various themes. Overall, the artwork dives into the history of Black Hairstyles by revealing how varied they have been throughout time and how politicized they have been.
Simpson has many critically acclaimed exhibitions. However, her 2019 exhibition “Darkening” located at Hauser & Wirth’s 22nd Street gallery in New York was a career standout. Simpson was honored for her extraordinary contribution to the practice, understanding, and support of the arts. The exhibition and her commitment to innovation and bringing thought to art were awarded the esteemed J. Paul Getty Medal.
Lorna Simpson’s Continuing Legacy
More recently, Simpson has not abandoned photography completely and still incorporates the art medium within her works. However, she has turned her attention to video installations.
She first began working with video installations when creating “Corridor” (2003). This piece juxtaposed the stores of two Black women. One of the women was portrayed as a runaway slave within the American Civil war. While the other was a mid-20th-century housewife. Simpson was able to draw parallels and demonstrate both of their lives in isolation.
Using the camera as a medium, Simpson created large-scale video installations such as “Cloudscape” (2004) and “Momentum” (2011) that have taken on her past photography’s characterization of addressing themes around memory and representation with references to the past using music, staging, and lighting.
Lorna Simpson currently lives in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York. In February 2020, Simpson’s work was part of “Young, Gifted and Black,” an exhibition of 50 contemporary works of new and emerging artists that explore themes of race, class, politics, and human dignity through various mediums, including painting, drawing, portraiture, sculpting, multimedia, metalworks and new materials.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the U.S. in March 2020, Simpson began to create a series of collages. Her works were made to express a response to wider political concerns.
In May 2020, Simpsons latest exhibition moved to an online format because of the pandemic’s restrictions. Her exhibition “Give Me Some Moments” showed the collection of pieces she created during the beginning of the pandemic, as well as other politically relevant portrayals.
Lorna Simpson’s current exhibition “Everrrything” at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles opened on September 14 of this year. The works on view reveal the ways in which Simpson’s multidisciplinary, multivalent practice uniquely deploys metaphor, metonymy, and formal prowess to offer a powerful response to the daily experience of American life now. The exhibition also debuts new sculptural works, both indoors and outdoors, that further invite viewers into the intricacies of Simpson’s vision.