Lorna Simpson: Works on Paper

Lorna Simpson, Leaning Tower, 2011, collage and ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2".

LORNA SIMPSON’S move away from video and large-scale photographs to drawings and collages might have struck some as a radical shift. Yet her serial portraits of women offer up a ripe extension of her career-long consideration of how identity is endlessly performed and transformed. They also challenge the idea that artists shouldn’t change their styles just as freely as they change their hair. Simpson’s heads have Manic Panic hair, whether flaxen, waxen, knotted, polka dotted, twisted, beaded, or braided (and so on, as the Broadway song goes). Last summer, the Aspen Art Museum dedicated an elegant exhibition to these works, highlighting their subtlety and wit, and showcasing how Simpson has incorporated graphite, ink, and watercolor, as well as faces from old issues of Ebony and Jet magazines, into her oeuvre. The images and essays in the handsome accompanying catalogue are a testament to the connections, departures, and complexity of Simpson’s recent output. Throughout the book we see that while Simpson finds new possibilities in drawing, she also nods, sometimes quite slyly, to deep-set traditions. As MoMA curator Connie Butler aptly notes in her essay, “The intimacy of the paper she chooses, consistently the 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of the notebook or sketchpad, is a scale close to photography’s ancient history as well.”

Simpson based many of her initial drawings on her 2007 video installation The Institute, which uses footage taken from a 1950s film promoting a special-education school. A 2008 sequence that focuses on a student named Barbara, for instance, portrays the skin on her face as nearly translucent, while a necklace floats around her invisible neck. She seems barely there, and yet her temperament—and her hairstyle—is detailed with precision. Simpson’s collages feature magazine portraits of women, also with elaborately painted or sketched hairstyles, showing the mutability of her subjects’ identity as we follow them throughout the series. Leaning Tower, 2011 (above), portrays a contemplative woman from Ebony with a tall and swirling black-and-blue coiffure, a tornado of tangles on the top of her head. Her hair’s inky wash could be a tone poem about representations of black women by black cultural producers, but it also points to the themes of change that underwrite most of Simpson’s work, and seem to have prompted her own restyling as an artist, taking pencil and eraser to page.