Lorna Simpson: Manipulation of Spectatorship

Lorna Simpson is a highly recognized African-American artist who has expressed her creativity and skill through photography, and more recently, movies. She did her graduation in the School of Visual Arts in New York and her post graduation at the University of California in San Diego (ArtFacts.net, 2007). Her work is somewhat abstract and has a very subtle meaning. She usually uses literary elements such as metaphor, biography, portraiture and narrative fin her work. Many of her works deal with concepts of ‘blackness’ and ‘feminism’ (Armendi, 2001). Lorna Simpson became popular in the mid-1980s with her large scale black and white photographic works of art that combined photo and text in a novel manner.
What is most characteristic about her work is that she always makes the spectator think, self-reflect, and finally arrive at the meaning of the work. This gives the viewer the thrill of having solved a puzzle. In the words of Marianne Kurylo-Litvak, “Simpson manipulates spectatorship by utilizing the Brechtian method of distanciation that relies on audience participation through speculative detachment”. (Kurylo-Litvak, 1998)
General Style:

Laura Simpson uses a technique commonly known as photo text, which combines figurative or nonfigurative photos and text. Usually, in the works of Lorna Simpson, the figures have their backs turned towards the viewer. Even when it is not so, they do not make eye contact with the viewer. Her female figures are simply dressed and do not follow evoke any open feelings as most figures in photography do.  But the author in a manipulative manner uses these obscure figures as a screen to portray the discrimination in our society of the black woman.
She presents them with a sort of curious detachment that can be seen in investigative films. Sometimes, she uses pieces of texts along with the mural-size huge black and white images that give only partial meaning to her work. The rest of the meaning has to be pieced together by the thinking viewer. More recently, in her work that is being exhibited at Sean Kelly, one finds that Simpson has also given up the use of the human figure. Instead, she presents empty, urban and natural settings. The emptiness of these works seems to express human loss and desire in a very effective and powerful manner (Heartney, 1995).
One finds that most of the works of Lorna Simpson focus on sadness. The texts seem to talk about the emptiness and loneliness in urban life. The totally unknown places in the photographs seem to symbolize the emptiness of relationshions in urban settings. The lack of color and polish in the black and white photographs creates a sense of mystery and helps to dig out faded memories within the viewer. Simpson often removes the background or the faces of her subjects so that she can remove any kind of identity to the image (Morgan, 1990).
The power of the artist in bending the viewer to her angle is clear in the way she uses the black female body in her works. There is nothing much revealed about the model in the photographs. Even faces are hidden and this underlines in a subtle manner, the way black women have been seen across the ages – as de-faced bodies. Again, Simpson uses fragmented bodies to indicate vulnerability and domination. The viewer can see only some part of the body such as the back of the head,  or back of the body or an arm or a knee. This shows that the black women has never been fully portrayed to the extend that a viewer can understand her (Lorna Simpson for the sake of the viewer).
Analysis of Specific Works:
There is “The Car” showing a narrow street that is stretching beyond and arch-covered pathway. Somehow the included text makes it clear to the viewer that the narrator must be sitting within the auto that is parked clearnly in the foreground. The words “small cramped room within a room” together with other text suggests that maybe these random thoughts are coming to the author just before sex in the car (Heartney, 1995).
There is  a series of black-and-white photographs titled “9 Props,” each of which focuses on a single object in an empty room – a solitary vase, cup or goblet. The text in each photograph refers to figures that are missing around these solitary objects. This allows the reader to understand that these images refer to earlier photographs by James Van Der Zee. Simpson, in a very fine and yet powerful manner indicates that the black middle class continues to be invisible.
Lorna Simpson’s photograph Waterbearer was reproduced in 1987.  A black woman with shabby hair is seen fro the back, pouring water from a jug and a plastic bottle, one in each hand. The text included in the photograph says: “She saw him disappear by the river They asked her to tell what happened Only to discount her memory”. While the figure of the woman is calm and lacks emotion, the language shows the emotional disturbance that this woman may be carrying. Here, Lorna Simpson allows the reader to consider the history of the black people and how the history can reveal subconsciously hidden memories. (Hooks, 1993).
In 1989 Lorna Simpson made Guarded Conditions. It depicts a  braided black woman in working shoes. She is shown in three images with minor changes in her body position. This is then repeated in a serial manner. The work seems to indicate the model’s changing notions of her own identity (Marshall, 1989). The position of the feet and hair are slightly rearranged in these images and in the middle row of photographs, the right hand alternately embraces, then caresses the left arm.
Along with the photo, there is a rhythm of the words “sex attacks skin attacks,” which titles the prints. Guarded Conditions has been intellectually interpreted by various artists (Copeland, 2005). In a December 1989 review, an art critic found a link between a newspaper article reporting the brutal beating and rape of a black woman by two white securing guards and the work “Guarded Conditions”. Three years later, a curator wrote that this picture portrays “a double-sided metonym of racial sufferance”(Copeland, 2005).
In his view, the isolated body of the woman invokes “slave auctions, hospital examination rooms, and criminal line-ups,” while the duplication “of the turned-back figures … calls up images of those women who stand guard against the evils of the world on the steps of black fundamentalist churches on Sunday mornings” (Copeland, 2005)
Stack of Diaries, 1993, portrays a black and white photo of a stack of diary books; in the foreground tehre is a multileveled metal stand that holds stacked glass panels, with black-lettered text-fragments rendered in subtly distinct styles (bold script, italics, etc.) pressed into the glass. The different styles seem to imply the presence of different voices. The viewer is encouraged through these phrases to explore why the writer of the diaries has so much confusion in identities.
In Twenty Questions  (A Sampler), Simpson shows a woman’s back, her features hidden and masked by a lush har that is long enough to cover her neck revealing only the vulnerable shoulders and the upper back which is covered by a simple calico chemise. The questions included in the photo are: “Is she pretty as a picture” “Or clear as crystal” :Or pure as a lily” “Or Black as coal” “Or sharp as a razor”. Though the subject does not face the viewer, the viewer is forced to look at her judgmentally and the text is specifically aimed at encouraging the viewer to dig up recorded history and  past experiences in his brain to come up with an answer (Lorna Simpson by Okwui).
Overall,  one finds that Simpson’s photo-text constructions are like puzzles inviting interested viewers to solve. There are clues provided by the text. Maybe the author was stifled in trying to express the subtle thoughts through text form. By including both picture and text in the imagery, Lorna Simpson grasps the viewers attention for a while, allows him to reflect on all possible meanings in the context of history and contemporary society and give unique interpretations that might also be based on his own personal experience. Her new works attract the viewer to dig out meanings that are hidden between symbolic pictures and fragments of text.
Some people may accuse the author of allowing too much freedom to the viewer in interpretation. However, it cannot be denied that her works invite the viewer to examine closely, think deeply and finally give directions to arrive at conclusions that orient the viewer towards her own opinion. This is the effective manipulation of spectatorship as found in Lorna Simpson’s work of art
Online Sources:
Marshall, Peter (2007). More Work and Selected Links” ‘Guarded Conditions’ (1989). http://photography.about.com/cs/photographersaz/a/aa021604_2.htm
ArtFacts.net (2007). Lorna Simpson.http://www.artfacts.net/index.php/pageType/artistInfo/artist/2932
Print Journals:
Copeland, Huey (2005). “Bye, Bye Black Girl”: Lorna Simpson’s figurative retreat. Art Journal, Summer, 2005. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0425/is_2_64/ai_n15338133
Heartney, Eleanor (1995). Figuring absence – Lorna Simpson, photography, Sean Kelly gallery, New York, New York. Art in America, December 1995. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1248/is_n12_v83/ai_17860708
Marianne Kurylo-Litvak, The Art of Lorna Simpson: Challenging Preconceived Notions with Invisibility Imagery, thesis, Queens College, City University, 1998, 17.
Decter, Joshua (1994). Lorna Simpson – Josh Baer Gallery, New York, New York. ArtForum, January 1994. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_n5_v32/ai_15143646
Hooks, Bell (1993).Lorna Simpson: Waterbearer – photograph. ArtForum. September 1993. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_n1_v32/ai_14580117
Morgan, Joan (1990). Lorna Simpson: words of art – photographer uses technique known as photo text. Essence, December 1990. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1264/is_n8_v21/ai_9132098
Smith, Roberta (1990). Review/Art; Linking Words and Images Explosively. The New York Times. July 20, 1990.
Armendi, De Nicole (2001). Lorna Simpson’s Public Sex Series: The Voyeuristic Presence and the Embodied Figure’s Absence. ATHANOR XIX. Rivelli’s Books. http://www.fsu.edu/~arh/events/athanor/athxix/AthanorXIX_armendi.pdf
Lorna simpson by okwui
Lorna simpson by for the sake of the viewer.
Files used:
Simpson-resourcepacket (Lorna Simpson by okwui)
Lorna Simpson for the sake of the viewer

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