Lorna Simpson

Considered one of the leading artists of her generation, New York City native Lorna Simpson has been exploring notions of race, culture and gender in her work since the mid-1980s.

In the early days of her career, Simpson began to receive attention for photography-based work that challenged traditional narrative styles and expectations about identity with revealing juxtapositions of images and text. She has maintained similar interests throughout her career, while progressing through a variety of media: from large-scale felt works to film and video installations to her most recent photography series.

The entire range of Simpson’s work, produced over a 20-year period, is the subject of a traveling exhibition that has crisscrossed the country over the past year. It has appeared in Los Angeles, Miami and now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, through May 6, 2007.

On the occasion of the show’s return to her hometown, Simpson spoke to ArtInfo about the experience of having a mid-career survey and her reflections on the 20 years of work in the show.

Lorna, as a native New Yorker does having this show arrive at the Whitney feel like a homecoming of sorts?

It feels as though I am showing in my hometown certainly, and that’s exciting. But I’ve been showing a lot here in terms of having gallery shows in New York, so some of the work has been seen by a local audience.

But I think because it’s at the Whitney, it will have a broader audience of visitors than the smaller Chelsea gallery audience.

How involved were you in selecting work for the retrospective?

I’ve worked closely with Helaine Posner, who’s the curator from the American Federation of the Arts [who organized the exhibition].

I don’t see it as a retrospective, but more of a survey of work over a period of time. In being under 50 [laughs]—or I should say late 40s—it doesn’t really feel like a retrospective, because I feel as though it is not the majority of the work I will do—but certainly a selection of it.

Was it difficult to choose favorites, like choosing from among your children?

Because the work has a broad range of mediums—there are two-dimensional photographic works, works that are silk-screens on felt, there are video works and some installations—I wanted to do a balance of early work from the ’80s, but also cover all these different areas that I’ve explored.

I was, kind of, trying to get a variety of the work that I had done and the different genres that I have touched throughout that time.

Juxtaposing images is a consistent and essential formal strategy in your work. Does seeing individual pieces juxtaposed with your entire output change the way you understand them?

A lot of times the work was conceived in suites, particularly the two-dimensional work. They were kind of done in concert. It’s rare that there’s a work that is really a one-off, meaning that there is just one work of a particular sort.

I kind of do, over the course of maybe a couple of years, work within [separate] bodies of work. I think maybe I hadn’t had the opportunity to see all of those related works all together in one room—for instance, the felt works that are presented. There are a lot of serigraphs on felt that appear in the show. And those, I’ve seen maybe seven or 10 at a time in a room, so it’s really nice to see many more of them all at once.

Were there any surprises for you when you saw all the work together?

No, not really, but I might have had a different answer last year.

The Whitney will be the third venue, so I might be just a little jaded. [laughs] There might have been a surprise, but now it has certainly worn off completely.

In the exhibition, are you aware of the social or political implications of your work changing over the decades?

I don’t think it has in terms of my relationship to it. Rereading reviews and things that were written, it’s interesting how the tone and categorization of the work changed over periods of time—I guess, a 10-year period.

I wouldn’t say that my relationship to the work has so much changed, but it’s certainly clear there are different agendas with which it has been written about. So when I look back at the work, I don’t think my sociopolitical or artistic relationship to it changes. The world around changes a bit more.

African American women tend to be central in your work. Looking over the survey, can you chart changes to that identity as a political condition over the past 20 years?

Generally speaking, outside of my work completely, the world has changed in many ways and hasn’t in many other ways.

Race is a very charged subject in the United States. 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.

I try to navigate through the work in such a way that it doesn’t monolithically represent a particular group; it more uses a central figure that is black. But I know that I live in a culture where that is a very charged statement, and therefore, that statement in itself polarizes people in the way they think about that figure.

What about personal changes? It’s often claimed that there are biographical elements in your work. Do you see your own personal development in the exhibition?

Well, I do not appear in any of my work. I think maybe there are elements to it and moments to it that I use from my own personal experience, but that, in and of itself, is not so important as what the work is trying to say about either the way we interpret experience or the way we interpret things about identity.

But I see differences in terms of my interest in narration and text and the way that they operate—in the works that contain physical text in them, or in video work where there are open conversations and different levels of narration. Those things have shifted over the course of time.

What new projects are currently in the works?

I just completed a video that contains footage from a psychiatric institute in Wichita, Kan., that was filmed in the late ’50s.

It has raw stock footage from un-put-together promotional material for this particular institution, and it is edited together into a panoramic series of small frames within one big image.

And then from that, I made drawings. The footage has some interesting, very stylized sequences in it, in terms of lighting and positions of the subjects, so I embarked on making portraits out of this film, because that’s kind of the way they appear in the film.

It has been interesting to use found footage and to also to make drawings, which is something that I haven’t done since I was a teenager.

How does it fit in with your past projects?

I think it fits in with regard to ideas of presentation. This particular footage from the late ’50s is very gender specific, very stylized in terms of femininity and also presenting oneself as being a mother or a young woman—and the visual mores in and around that.

I’d say that that’s in keeping with the work and my interest.