Lorna Simpson Brings Identity into “FOCUS” with Images Drawn from Ebony Magazine

Artwork: Installation photograph of FOCUS: Lorna Simpson, courtesy of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Lorna Simpson (b. 1960) came of age at a spectacular time in the city’s history. As the flames of the 1960s turned to amber embers, in its wake a new culture was taking form and shape. The first post-Civil Rights generation came to the fore, inheriting the mantle of the past and striving for more.

Also: “The Color Line” Tells the History of Black America From the Inside

Simpson began her career in art as a street photographer before hitting the studio to explore ideas of race, gender, culture, history, and memory—the very foundation of our identities. She began expanding beyond the photograph to discover new ways to communicate, integrating elements of film and video, assemblage, and painting. In doing so, she collapsed the space between artist and subject so that the sense of “otherness” was entirely erased. And in its place came complete and total being: the sheer presence that representation affords when the creator shares of themselves.

Detail from installation photograph of FOCUS: Lorna Simpson, courtesy of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

A new exhibition, FOCUS: Lorna Simpson, currently on view at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through January 15, 2017, delves back into history, leafing through the pages of Ebony magazine from the 1950s through the 1970s to reflect on the ways in which representation influences individual, cultural, and national identity. “For me, the images hearken back to my childhood, but are also a lens through which to see the past 50 years in American history,” Simpson reveals.

For this exhibition, Simpson reminds us that identity is not an isolated thing; it does not exist in a vacuum and is vulnerable to the tides of life and world events. Thus, she creates a compelling visual metaphor by integrating photographs from the Associated Press photos featuring natural elements, such as fire, water, and ice, which often signal disaster and upheaval (either natural or manmade) with select images from Ebony.

Lorna Simpson, Moveableness, 2015 (detail) ink and screenprint on claybord. 9 panels, overall dimensions: 108 x 72 x 1 in. Courtesy of the artist

No longer are do we see merely the form as Simpson’s works drive all the way through to the molten core, providing a powerful comment on the interior and exterior at the same time. As Simpson explained to ArtInfo, “Me as an artist, any work that I would do that would just present a black figure, regardless of subject, has a particular charge in this country because of its history and relationship to race. And that is a condition that is outside of the work and me, so it’s more about the reception. I think I tend to think about the work in that I make it for myself, and the agendas in it are self-driven.”

In this way, Simpson creates a space for the viewer to identity, to project, to absorb, or to presume anything they wish to see on the black female form. Which speaks to the preexisting conditioning of our world, one that struggles with replacing mythology with fact—and this struggle becomes the space in which disaster lives. Yet somehow in this chaotic abyss, Simpson reveals an ethereal, timeless beauty to us, a beauty that offers wisdom, hope, and solace for all that has been lost.

Installation photograph of FOCUS: Lorna Simpson, courtesy of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.