Interview with Lorna Simpson

Sabine Mirlesse interviews Lorna Simpson on the occasion of the artist’s survey exhibition at Jeu de Paume, Paris.

A retrospective of Lorna Simpson’s work opened to the public on May 28 at the Jeu du Paume in Paris. In the words of curator Joan Simon, Simpson’s work can be argued “to be built on the juxtaposition of gestures and reenactments.” Reenactments of the past, that is, of memories that form part of an American twentieth-century psyche as well the artist’s own childhood experiences. Black-and-white and tinged with gold, her art often employs era-specific clothes and hairstyles, materials found in second-hand shops, and old photographs and postcards, calling forth memories of the past. She supplies the props and the gestures, a short text or melody, and beckons the viewer to relate these to cultural inheritance and personal experience.

This conversation took place via e-mail and in person in April and May 2013.

SM: Your first European retrospective has just opened here in Paris at the Jeu de Paume. Given that much of your work is informed by an American history of race and gender relations, did you or the curators make any decisions about the show based on the audience?

LS: I feel that the history of British and European colonialism in the Americas, Africa, and India involves many of the same issues. Of course, there are different ways to approach the concept of audience. The exhibition spans about twenty-seven years of work, and was put together by curator Joan Simon in collaboration with Marta Gili of the Jeu de Paume and Okwui Enwezor of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, both of whom I have worked and exhibited with in the past, in different European countries. We all viewed this exhibition as an opportunity to present a wide scope of the work; I personally did not give consideration to tailoring the presentation to any preconceived idea about the audiences in different countries—that would be an improbable touring package. This exhibition operates as a vehicle to introduce viewers to my work in a comprehensive manner. The European context is explored more in depth by art critic Elvan Zabunyan in the accompanying exhibition catalog.

SM: Do you have a favorite work in this exhibition’s survey?

LS: Well, I like what’s new! [Laughs.] Since it’s an installation, you don’t quite get to see it until it’s up. This is really the first time I’m seeing the most recent pieces in this way.

SM: It makes a huge difference. For instance, watching Cloudscape (2004) in a darkened room is strangely hypnotic. Was that hymn being whistled by the man covered in smoke composed specifically for the video? Does the melody have a title?

LS: Terry Atkins is the artist and musician in the film. In a thrift shop, I found a songbook of American compositions and turn-of-the-century hymns. A lot of them sound like American spirituals from the 1800s. What we were looking for was something that wasn’t completely recognizable but at the same time—

SM: —nostalgic and familiar?

LS: Yes. And with a melodic element that would be interesting when played in reverse as well, but with a short and not overly complicated phrasing, so that it would make sense as a video piece. We went through it little by little, reflecting on what this or that tune would sound like if whistled, played backwards, etc.

black and white photograph

Lorna Simpson, 1957–2009 (detail). Renne Collection, Vancouver. Courtesy the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris and Brussels. © Lorna Simpson.

SM: Several African-American visual artists use jazz improvisation as a point of reference for their work. Is it also important to you?

LS: Music is a big part of the American historical and cultural experience. Jazz is the music I grew up with: lots and lots of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker, to name a few.

I just completed a new video project for the show that involves a collaboration with and filmed performance of Jason Moran. We have been trying to do something together for a while and I am really excited—it was a great opportunity to work with him.

SM: Within this exhibition, which largely comprises black-and-white photographs and videos, the section in which gold and fabric are used really stands out. Could you tell me about the use of the color and felt?

LS: It’s from a re-creation. The monitors playing the videos in front of the felt and the gold prints are all from a piece called Momentum (2010), which is based on a childhood performance at Lincoln Center. I was ten or eleven years old at the time, dressed up in gold body paint and a gold Afro, and on pointe. Daytime (2011), Daytime Gold (2011), and Chandelier (2011) were all made from late-1960s-era found postcards, printed with gold glittery ink, that documented the early years of Lincoln Center.

The other “gold” pieces in that room are from Public Sex (1995–98), a series of works printed on felt. The text in those works is about how a public space is transformed during different times of the day by the people using it, and the kind of sex they might have there. By using felt and found postcards, the room is meant to represent the fifteen-year period I’ve spent working with those materials and the different ideas in play during that time.

SM: You’ve mentioned that this childhood performance was important because it made you realize that you would rather be the audience than the performer. Now, however, we see you stepping into the center of your own works in 1957–2009 (2009) and again in the Chess video projections (2013). What brought about this change?

LS: I started really stepping in front of the camera with 1957–2009, which was painful! Every day I was in a bad mood and I just wanted to get through it. [Laughs.] I was suffering through that. It’s very artificial: I was imitating a woman’s body that is different from mine, a woman’s body that is more agile—I think she was slightly double-jointed and I’m not. I was less self-conscious, though, because my aim was to mirror her. But even then, I hated it at the beginning. Toward the end of the project I became more comfortable and it became less of a horrible chore.

SM: Was it just as excruciating to get in front of the camera for Chess?

LS: No, actually—that was a few years later and was, in a way, capping off that body of work. I felt more comfortable by then.

color photograph

Lorna Simpson, still from the video Momentum, 2010. Courtesy the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris and Brussels. © Lorna Simpson.

SM: Did you want to be a photographer growing up, or was this an interest that developed later on?

LS: From a young age, I was immersed in the arts. I had parents who loved living in New York and loved going to museums, and attending plays, dance performances, concerts. They would take me with them. Their appreciation was free and open; they did not think that they had an artist in the making. The High School of Art and Design introduced me to photography and graphic design. At the School of Visual Arts, where I got my BFA, I became interested in photography and the history of New Wave cinema. When I was in grad school, at University of California, San Diego, I focused more on performance and conceptually based art.

SM: So your foundation was in photography, but you now incorporate other elements into your work, like sculpture and performance. Why is this?

LS: When I was growing up in photography, photography departments and their views of photography were very narrow. Photography was something that went in a frame, was kept to a certain scale, and didn’t have text or any other element. A lot of the support for my early work came from institutions that focused on painting and sculpture, or institutions that didn’t insist on the separation between genres.

My foundation in photography allows me to think about things in terms of film and video, because I can imagine things and know how to communicate them by working with a DP, for example. It’s kind of hard not to have a background in photography and have an interest in film, especially if you’re interested in what is happening in front of the camera.

That said, my practice as an artist does not work out of a single viewpoint of photographic practice. I experiment with many different mediums for the sake of coming to experience different processes. Conceptually, I enjoy working in different mediums—outside my comfort zone and range of experience—and how that exploration expands the content of my work.

SM: During an interview last year with artist Deana Lawson, she mentioned that getting to know your work was an epiphany for her own development, as it was the first time she had an African-American female role model. Are you aware of your own trailblazing, so to speak? Who were your role models when you were a student?

LS: When I was a student, the work of artists from varying cultural contexts was not as broad as it is now. I think of the work of David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Bill T. Jones, and many of the artists in Kellie Jones’s 2011–2012 exhibition Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, presented at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and MoMA PS1 in New York.

black and white photograph

Lorna Simpson, still from the video Chess, 2013. Courtesy the artist; Salon 94, New York; and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris and Brussels. © Lorna Simpson

From time to time, when I teach or mentor students, I am reminded how much the work is appreciated. I am always surprised because I feel there are so many people—other artists who were around when I was in my twenties—who I really loved and appreciated, and who deserve the same attention and opportunity, like Howardena Pindell or Adrian Piper. There are tons of them. It is about race and being African American, but it’s also about gender—and there are just so many women who either should be given more credit or have more vibrant careers for having paved the way. It’s a little bittersweet. Things should be better. But then, that’s just where we are.