BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 01 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 26

Lorna Simpson

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 01 SEP 96

By way of framing the increasingly shrill problematics that have buckled the faces of resistance, struggle and freedom in our culture, Cornel West begins his sterling essay 'Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism' with two polemic quotes. The first is from Paul Valèry's 1919 mediation on Europe. 'But no part of the world' Valèry wrote, 'has possessed this singular physical property: the most intense power of radiation combined with an equally intense power of assimilation'. The second was written 42 years later by Franz Fanon with a righteous passion equal to Valèry's vision. 'This European opulence is literally scandalous for it has been founded on slavery and it has been nourished with the blood of slaves and it comes directly from the soil and subsoil of that underdeveloped world'. Thus far, Fanon's milk has nursed Lorna Simpson's art. But with her new body of work she hazards the appearance of having been ground down under a contemporary version of the capricious and powerful assimilation famously attributed by Valèry to European culture. Interesting. On seeing her exhibition, my concentration was immediately re-routed from her black and white photographs to an act of musing over something which periodically arises in our business: how the art world will square this new work with the profile she and others have deftly etched into her teeming exhibitions - the uninterrupted broadcast of issues revolving around race and gender. For some reason, Simpson has now decided to foreground and ballast her art with something other than her familiar subjects. She has succinctly packed up her things and moved to a point beyond the academy's droning debate over eurocentrism and multiculturalism.

Moved where? She has made 'waterless lithographs', serigraphs and photographs printed on humble felt, using techniques, I am told, that would make a print connoisseur tremble with awe. Each photograph is illuminated by a narrative, or sometimes two. There is one particular serigraph entitled The Bed (all works 1995). This double picture provides for Simpson's gentle withdrawal from her previous subject matter. And in that gesture, she simultaneously introduces us to another order of expression. While some of the narratives are descriptive, the one for The Bed is diaristic. People of colour have checked into an upmarket hotel and the hotel detective becomes suspicious. '...maybe we have broken "the too many dark people in the room code''?' the narrative cynically wonders. Right on cue, the story's moral ether floats by, and without much grace. It recites the well-worn axiom of how wealth and social position often insulates one from racism and the distrust it spawns. 'More privacy is attained depending on what floor you are on, if you are in the penthouse...'

I am listening carefully to the voice I hear in this narrative - a voice that is wide awake to racism, but a voice that also knows where the penthouse is. While it is not a voice of uneasy double-speak, but rather of fresh truthfulness, its impression is literally flatfooted - conveyed visually by two photographs of two very Philip-Stark-like hotel rooms stacked one atop the other. First Class passage and the slave-hold is far from what this is, but the picture comes across nevertheless. Compare the voice in The Bed to the voices echoing from her earlier work, and you will find that it is not the inflection of a victim you hear, but instead someone who is brilliantly annoyed. Indeed what is absent from this new work is Simpson's routine reliance on the faceless victim who is black, and often a woman. The anonymous and oppressed has been eclipsed with a narrator self-empowered.

And how empowered? In this work it's always the same. A portion of the narrative from The Car gives it away: 'The intensity of their voices indicates an argument, but I am really concentrating on them completely. It seems even if they had walked through they would not have noticed the presence of anyone, let alone anyone having sex'. This is the voice of someone empowered by naughty little sexual capers, that must always unfold in public. In the case of The Car, guess where? But it also happens on a fire escape (get it - fire escape?), or some cute little spot along the side of the road, memorable for having been secluded, but just close enough to the weekend hikers to still qualify as chancy. This is sex the way the dangerous classes do it, and not coincidentally, the way readers of Cosmopolitan and Playboy fantasise about it every month. All quite polite, but sufficiently risky to be thrilling and nasty, it could all be copy for Saab's new 'peel off your inhibitions' campaign. Simply mischievous, but deliciously impetuous.

Well, what to do with this work? Be the smiling but offended parent, take the role of the voyeur? Not enough. Cornel West rightfully laments the way critics and artists condemn themselves to manufacturing transgression against authority by consistently constructing alternatives as an escalation of radicality rather than by inventing new forms. He is right to deplore our tail-chasing. Simpson has tried to reinvent the form of transgression by promoting the sexual freedom of the individual. I admire her impulse, but Simpson has stepped outside the social and political rhetoric that sheltered her earlier work; the clichés for sexual freedom sneak up on her too fast and, throttling her invention, choke it to death before we can glimpse it. In the remnants of this work I detect the desire to carry the narrator's voice, to carry the heart of her art to a place beyond the point of identification with the victim, an urge that in a more complete form could possibly defer the assimilation Valèry ascribed to Simpson's culture, to our culture.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.