On ViewHauser & Wirth
September 7–October 22, 2022
Lorna Simpson executes photography with elegant restraint and a delicate but steady refusal to meet expectations. Combining text with imagery, her early photographs set up an elusive narrative only to deny catharsis. Instead, there is a glitch where the linguistic meets the visual. With neither quite describing the other, this gap generates something more like poetry than prose—open-ended and interpretive.
Brought together at Hauser & Wirth in the most comprehensive show since her 1992 survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, her 1980s and 1990s photo work confirms Simpson’s place as an abiding aesthetic revolutionary. Seen in this way, the works in the exhibition betray a surety of the kind that can hone a habit and a viewpoint into a visual voice. With Gestures/Reenactments, Simpson’s MFA thesis from 1985, she interrupted the then-accepted standards for a viewer’s engagement with the photographic image. Six panels depict a Black man, his face cut from the frame as he takes different poses. Below, seven text panels describe fragmentary moments of the intimate and the public, the violent and the passive, the threatening and the benign. The mismatch between the number of photographs and number of text panels curtails the will to read these words as captions. Instead of illuminating, they identify limits: of language, comprehensibility, and of the photographic as documentary. Gently mocking the expectations of knowability set by portraiture and documentary imagery, the paired words and photographs evoke the opposite, calling up the incommunicable, the gestured at but uncapturable, and perhaps above all, the irreducible. There is a knowing here that cannot be wedged into an image, something that Simpson refuses to turn into an object of display.
In She (1992), a figure dressed in a boxy, buttoned suit sits for four color Polaroids. Each frame calls for a subtly altered stance. The legs go from spread to crossed, the hands from hips to crotch and back again. Hanging above the frame, “female,” is etched into a clear plastic plaque. Set in a slanted script, the word invokes reductive classifications, healthcare systems, and perfunctory bureaucracy. Viewed alongside You’re Fine (1988)—which shows a reclining figure, her back to us, framed by the phrase “you’re fine, you’re hired,” and a list of tests comprising a physical exam—the works take on the sinister edge of bodies regulated, emphasizing the Black female body especially as a historical site of medical malpractice, social scrutiny, and slavery. But the wiry and entangled implications are precisely the power of Simpson’s bold re-imagining of photography. Within the gap between the words and the images, the exact meaning of the work is inconclusive, which in turn allows it to remain expansive. The words placed alongside Simpson’s photographs have often been seen as smart critique on the limits of language. Constantly running up against its own edges, language is tied to its directness. We say, or we attempt to say, exactly what we mean, leaving distressingly little room for ambiguity. But one of the beautiful and lasting potentials of the visual is its near inability to be literal. Images and media beyond the literary carry with them the scrim of doubt, of not-quite, and of in-betweenness. By placing the words alongside the images, Lorna Simpson liberated the photograph from its definitiveness, calling attention back to the artifice of its supposed realism.
Ultimately, what is on display in her early photography is the gap between both words and image—the ineffable and the implied that neither form can describe with precision, exactitude, or total certainty. Both mediums have access to different domains of meaning-making, and in setting them together Lorna Simpson established a radical new form of conceptual photography, one that though our eyes have since been trained to recognize it, continues to offer new and generative hypotheses on the power of inconclusive narratives.