Lorna Simpson (b. 1960)
Call Waiting (1997)
Easy to Remember (2001)
The Institute (2007)
Born in Brooklyn, New York, she attended the High School of Art and Design and the School of Visual Arts in New York, and then the University of California, San Diego. Her earliest work was as a documentary street photographer, before moving her observations of race and society into her studio. Simpson began exploring ethnic divisions in the 1980s era of multiculturalism. Her most notable works combine words with photographs of anonymously cropped images of women and occasionally men. While the pictures may appear straightforward, the text will often confront the viewer with the underlying racism still found in American culture.
Simpson first came to prominence in the 1980s for her large-scale works that combined photography and text and defied traditional conceptions of gender, identity, race, culture, history, and memory. Drawing on this work, she started to create large photos printed on felt that showed public but unnoticed sexual encounters. Recently, Simpson has experimented with film as well as continuing to work with photography.
Simpson's 1989 work, Necklines, shows two circular and identical photographs of a black woman's mouth, chin, neck, and collar bone. The white text, “ring, surround, lasso, noose, eye, areola, halo, cuffs, collar, loop”, individual words on black plaques, imply menace, binding or worse. The final phrase, text on red “feel the ground sliding from under you,” openly suggests lynching, though the adjacent images remain serene, non-confrontational and elegant.
Simpson has explored various media and techniques, including two-dimensional photographs as well as silk screening her photographs on large felt panels, creating installations, or producing as video works such as Call Waiting (1997). She was the first Black woman to participate at the Venice Biennale. In a recent video work, Corridor (2003), Simpson sets two women side-by-side; a household servant from 1860 and a wealthy homeowner from 1960. Both women are portrayed by artist Wangechi Mutu, allowing parallel and haunting relationships to be drawn. She has commented "I do not appear in any of my work. I think maybe there are elements to it and moments to it that I use from my own personal experience, but that, in and of itself, is not so important as what the work is trying to say about either the way we interpret experience or the way we interpret things about identity."
Her work often portrays black women combined with text to express contemporary society's relationship with race, ethnicity and sex.
Simpson's work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Miami Art Museum, the Walker Art Center, and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. In 2007, Simpson had a 20-year retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in her hometown of New York City.