Overlooking Newcastle, a city full of architectural disjunctures that add up to something self-possessed, if unresolved, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art feels like the right setting for the reversals and displacements of Lorna Simpson’s first European retrospective. The gallery’s industrial spaces are generous, allowing for some minor tweaks from the show’s previous presentations at Haus der Kunst, Munich, and Jeu de Paume, Paris, the latter of which notably earned the artist a nomination for this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.
Though neither chronological nor exhaustive, the show begins with her earliest image/text works of the 1980s. Gestures/Reenactments (1985) is made up of six photographs, each of a black male figure cropped in various poses from thighs to shoulders. He faces the camera front on only in the final shot, lips set and arms crossed, eyes lost below the top of the frame. The seven text panels below are too many to allow neat pairings, and the careful positioning and fragmented sentences are too elusive to be narrative, resisting a straightforward reading. The disjunction between text and image functions similarly in Twenty Questions (A Sampler) (1986) and Five Day Forecast (1988). Such surreal vignettes are starting points for Simpson’s continued reflections on perception and identity.
Almost 30 years on, the ambiguity of the figures in Simpson’s image/text work from this period – all dressed in loose white clothing that can’t be reconciled with fashion trends – together with nebulous language and heavy, well-made frames and text panels, lend these pieces an iconic confidence.
More recently, Simpson has been working with found photographs. In 1957–2009 Interiors (2009) the artist draws from an anonymous collection of over 200 images that she found online. They show an African-American woman striking glamorous poses for the camera in various settings in postwar Los Angeles. Simpson choreographed these mysterious performances by arranging the photographs in a splay of uneven grids across two walls hinged by a corner. The sense of reflection and repetition is animated and compounded by doubling some of the original photographs, and by the quiet insertion of Simpson’s re-stagings of various images, using herself as model. The constructed images blend in almost seamlessly with the found photos, producing an effect that is as uncanny as it is seductive.
Repurposing vernacular photographs often involves grouping images for sociological insight, pointing to obsessions and conventions of everyday picture-making. In 1957-2009 Interiors, however, Simpson seems more interested in understanding the experience of the woman pictured, of battling clichés and stereotypes with empathy, and suggesting a vigilance of looking that might begin to unravel them.
Mirroring also provides the structure for the artist’s short film Cloudscape (2004). The sound of whistling drifts into the gallery and is heard, even if only semi-consciously, over and over before its source – an elegantly dressed man whistling a hymnal tune on an empty noir-ishly lit set – is seen. A cloud of grey swirling smoke slowly engulfs the man as the camera closes in. An almost imperceptible seam breaks the single shot, as the cloud twists, and sound and image shift into reverse. The simple structure is emotional and elegiac, even without the knowledge that the whistler is American sculptor and musician Terry Adkins, who sadly passed away in February.
Upstairs, the sombre mood and black and white palette broke into movement and colour. In Momentum (2010), a two-channel video projected onto cinema-sized screens suspended in the centre of the room, gold-clad en pointe ballet dancers with buoyant, gilded afros rehearse another re-enactment: this time of Simpson’s own memory of performing at New York’s Lincoln Center as a young girl. The surrounding wall work makes an installation of the moment, with blow-ups of vintage postcard images composed from fuzzy grids of felt in Day Time and Day Time (Gold) (both 2011), and pop photo-collages and drawings of heads and streaks of hair in vivid sweeps of jewel colours in Ebony Collages and Gold Heads (both 2013). The screens are arranged at angles, the rehearsal on two loops, one a few beats behind the other. The slip of synchronicity is just enough to necessitate a back and forth of looking and looking again that becomes the viewer’s repeated gesture.
Indeed, repetition and re-enactment bring coherence to a practice spanning 30 years and encompassing various media (though photography is often at its core). While Simpson’s earliest works, particularly the image/text pieces from the 1980s, feel a little dated, a retrospective understanding also makes clear the legacy that Simpson, alongside Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems and others, has wrought. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, black American artists opened up revolutionary discussions about representations of race, gender and sexuality in art. Whilst these remain vital aspects of Simpson’s practice, this current retrospective shows that the work has, and always has had, space for more expansive responses: for looking again and seeing something else.