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Absences make her art stronger

April 17, 2006|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

Framed on the gallery walls in precise grids and rows are images of wigs and hairdos, mouths and necks, the backs of heads, or torsos. Many are pictures of women, African Americans who have turned their backs to the camera. Notably absent from these photographic works by artist Lorna Simpson is the direct gaze of a human face.

To hear Simpson tell it as she finishes installing the midcareer survey of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, producing a conventional portrait would amount to taking the easy way out.

"Portraiture doesn't necessarily have to correlate to having this facial expression where there's a reciprocal gaze, as though you know something about the subjects because you can gaze into their eyes," she says a few days before the show's opening. "The strategy in my work has been to kind of depersonalize that a little bit. By eliminating that quiet gaze back and forth, it gets the viewer to question, 'Well then, who is the subject?' "

Brooklyn-based Simpson's own gaze is steady, and she laughs easily as she revisits images that document her creative evolution since 1985. The exhibition, organized by the American Federation of Arts and curated by AFA adjunct curator Helaine Posner, encompasses image and text pieces, photographs on felt, film and video installations and a series of silhouetted profiles framed in the style of turn-of-the-century daguerreotypes. The show continues at MOCA through July 10, then travels to the Miami Art Museum, New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and other venues.

Simpson, 45, recently was named a 2006 Alphonse Fletcher Sr. fellow for work contributing to improving race relations in U.S. society and furthering the goals of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision. It was early in her career, however, that she began using words as a way to tease viewers into a deeper engagement with her images.

Pausing in front of "Stereo Styles" (1988), which features 10 Polaroid prints depicting the back of a woman's head dressed in a variety of hairstyles, Simpson notes the perky adjectives -- "Daring," "Country Fresh," "Long & Silky" -- that accompany the images.

"The text is basically ad copy for women's hair products," she says, "so the work is about that absurdity and how much it's a part of the language of the world we live in."

She crosses the gallery to "Twenty Questions (A Sampler)" (1986), a series of four identical photographs of the back of a woman's head, also accompanied by text: "Is she as pretty as a picture ... or black as coal."

"This is a refusal on my part to provide some monolithic identity, particularly an African American or black identity," Simpson says. "All this repetition and reproduction that photography affords can become part of the structure of the pieces. Maybe I am trying to get away from the personalization or the specialty of one single, rarefied image."

Huey Copeland, an assistant professor of art history at Northwestern University, has written about Simpson's work and will moderate "Down for Whatever: A Roundtable on the Current States of African American Art" on June 10 at MOCA in conjunction with the exhibition.

"Lorna is not simply giving you this easy image of the body," he says. "Her work is giving you an abstract image of the body that has been, in a sense, surgically cut by the lines of the frame. The figure is like a trope, a figure of speech that can be turned in a way that it opens the work up to a variety of different perspectives and visions. At the same time, she keeps it rooted in the particular, which of course is what great art always does."

Simpson had arrived at her essentially nondocumentary approach to photography by her mid-20s. An only child raised in New York by parents she describes as exceptionally arts-friendly political activists, she created accomplished but relatively straightforward photographic work during her years at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she received a bachelor's degree in photography. She arrived at UC San Diego in 1982, a 22-year-old master of fine arts student hankering for new direction.

"When I left New York, I'd already shown, done a lot of traveling, produced a lot of work and had actually gotten kind of bored with it because I felt I had kind of exhausted my skills," she says. "San Diego to me represented more of a conceptual art approach and really had an impact on me, because I definitely wanted to think about photography in different ways."

Simpson returned to New York in 1985 and began creating the signature pieces that challenge viewers to forge their own connections between words and images.

In 1997, she moved beyond the duplicate photographic groupings and mural pieces and began making films and video installations. They include "Easy to Remember" (2001), a grid of projected images depicting 15 pairs of lips humming wildly varied renditions of the Rodgers and Hart song "It's Easy to Remember" as recorded by jazz great John Coltrane.

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