Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera
a major survey of the work of Laurie Simmons
Image credit: Laurie Simmons, Big Camera, Little Camera, 1976. Collection of the artist. Photo courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, © Laurie Simmons.
I'll be out for the press opening, February 22nd, so check back soon for my recap. As a photographer, feminist, and daily creator of social media content, this exhibit particularly fascinates me. I'm also intrigued by families full of artists and creatives. Laurie Simmons' husband is painter Carroll Dunham and her children are actress/writer Lena Dunham and writer/activist Cyrus Dunham.
This spring, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera, a major survey of the work of Laurie Simmons. This comprehensive exhibition showcases Simmons's career-long exploration of how image culture creates and perpetuates the myths of our society, and upends traditional ideas about photography as a medium. More than four decades of work by Simmons are on display, with her iconic photographs, sculptures, and films highlighting her importance both historically and as an active contemporary artist. Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera is on view from February 23 to May 5, 2019 and is organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and curated by Senior Curator Andrea Karnes. The Chicago presentation is coordinated by MCA Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith.
Simmons's exploration of archetypal female gender roles, for example, women in domestic settings, is the primary subject of this exhibition and is a topic as poignant today as it was in the late 1970s, when she began to develop her mature style using props and dolls as stand-ins for people and places.
The namesake work for this exhibition, Big Camera, Little Camera (1976), shows an actual camera juxtaposed with a miniature one, exemplifying Simmons's technique of manipulating scale. The actual camera in the image was given to Simmons by her father, a dentist who took up photography in his free time. Simmons explains, "I put the two cameras together for scale, and as a metaphor - real life versus fiction. It was also a statement about what I intended to do with the camera." Far from documenting the world as it is, her photographs represent the effects of fiction on reality.
Often isolating the dolls and photographing them situated in tiny, austere settings, in series such as Early Black and White (1976-78), Simmons uses fictional scenes that mirror and unsettle the American dream of prosperity and feminine domesticity. The resulting works turn a critical eye on tropes that dominated the era of her upbringing, including the 1950s housewife and the Wild West cowboy.
After graduating from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in 1971, then living in upstate New York and subsequently traveling through Europe while living out of her car, Simmons moved to a loft in the then-low-rent Bowery section of Manhattan. To make a living, she briefly worked as a freelance photographer for a dollhouse miniature company, and in her off hours she pursued her main ambition of becoming an artist. Influenced by her day job, as well as a cache of old toys she discovered at a toy store in the Catskills, Simmons began to photograph dolls and small plastic objects, particularly those from the 1950s, the era of her childhood.
Carefully chosen props, preserved by the artist over the years, are on display, including those used to create the early doll house imagery. This ephemera offers new insight into Simmons's process, revealing her continuing fascination with models and fleshing out her use of color-coding to organize vignettes into cohesive and precise imagery.
Monumental photographs from the series Walking and Lying Objects (1987-91), are on view in the exhibition. This iconic body of work features a variety of legs - from human scale to tiny metal Japanese fetish models - showing beneath familiar domestic objects. The poses create personified objects and objectified people, demonstrating how our culture defines, fetishizes, and flattens bodies - especially the female body - and material things.
The exhibition also presents Simmons's more recent series, such as The Love Doll (2009-11), which features high-end, life-size Japanese dolls in day-to-day scenarios. Just as Walking Objects represents a transition to monumental props, The Love Doll moves away from dolls in miniature, but the added element of strangeness is not unlike that evoked by the miniatures. Another recent body of work, How We See (begun in 2014), shows another iteration of the artist's longstanding interest in gender roles.
For these images, Simmons hired makeup artists to paint eyes that look open on her sitters' closed eyelids. Inverting her usual practice by making real people appear uncannily artificial, Simmons says, "Social media allows us to put our most perfect, desirable, funny, and fake selves forward, while naturally raising questions about our longings, yearnings, and vulnerabilities. In How We See, I'd like to direct you how to see while also asking you to make eye contact with ten women who can't see you."
In addition to her photography, there is a small selection of sculpture and three films in the exhibition. The Music of Regret (2006, 45 min) is shown in the gallery space, and is a three-part musical shot in 35mm by the cinematographer Ed Lachman. The Music of Regret grew out of three of Simmons's distinct photographic series: Early Interiors, Walking Objects, and Café of the Inner Mind. The theme of regret is underscored by vintage puppets that interact with actress Meryl Streep, who plays the lead role, and Alvin Ailey dancers dressed as oversized inanimate objects.
The film My Art (2016) was written and directed by Simmons who also stars in the lead role as Ellie Shine, an artist who wishes to reinvigorate her work and address her lack of recognition. In My Art, Ellie embarks on a new project where she reimagines shot-for-shot vignettes from her favorite movies, casting herself as the celluloid stars from the past. Art and life collide in the film as scenes mirror unfolding relationships in her life. The film debuted in September 2016 at the Venice Film Festival and premiered in North America at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, where it received high accolades.
A major scholarly catalogue, co-published by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and DelMonico Books-Prestel, accompanies the exhibition.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Laurie Simmons, born in 1949 in Queens, New York, began photographing at age six when her father bought her a Brownie camera. She received a BFA from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia and moved to New York. Simmons is an internationally recognized artist who has had solo exhibitions at P.S. 1, Artists Space, and the Jewish Museum in New York; the Walker Art Center in Minnesota; San Jose Museum of Art in California; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis; the Gothenburg Museum of Art in Sweden; and the Neues Museum in Germany. She received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1997, and a Roy Lichtenstein Residency in Visual Arts from the American Academy in Rome in 2005. She currently lives and works in New York and Cornwall, Connecticut. Her husband is painter Carroll Dunham and her children are actress/writer Lena Dunham and writer/activist Cyrus Dunham.
Talk: Laurie Simmons
Saturday, February 23, 3 pm, MCA Theater
Artist Laurie Simmons leads audiences on a journey through the history of anti-feminist films on the opening day of her exhibition.
Screening: Laurie Simmons
Sunday, February 24, 11 am - 5 pm, MCA Theater
A marathon screening plays a selection of Laurie Simmons's films.
Screenings of My Art
February 26, March 26 and 31, April 7 and 9, MCA Theater
Screened as part of the exhibition, My Art is a feature-length film written, directed by, and starring Laurie Simmons who plays Ellie Shine, a single artist living in New York City. As her decades-old dream of a respectable place in the art world becomes more elusive, her frustration with her lack of recognition feels alarmingly urgent. When she is offered the summer house and studio of a famous friend she seizes the opportunity to hit the reset button on her life and work.
Curator Tour: Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera
Tuesday, March 19, noon, exhibition gallery
MCA Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith leads an in-depth tour of Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera and discusses the artist's practice.
Talk: Laurie Simmons with Genevieve Gaignard
Thursday, April 10, 6 pm, MCA Theater
Laurie Simmons has sometimes been cast as a "reluctant feminist." In this conversation, the artist brings together a panel of next-generation thinkers to consider the tension between personal politics and the making of feminist art in a moment when gender is increasingly deconstructed. They also address how the feminist reading of her work by younger artists has changed her own perspective and her work.
Lead support for Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera is provided by the Harris Family Foundation in memory of Bette and Neison Harris: Caryn and King Harris, Katherine Harris, Toni and Ron Paul, Pam and Joe Szokol, Linda and Bill Friend, and Stephanie and John Harris; Becky and Lester Knight; Zell Family Foundation; Julie and Larry Bernstein; and Cari and Michael J. Sacks. Major support is provided by Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson. Generous support is provided by Robert J. Buford; Anne L. Kaplan; Kovler Family Foundation; Jennifer and Alec Litowitz; Phillips; Carol Prins and John Hart/The Jessica Fund; Marilyn and Larry Fields; Efroymson Family Fund; Katherine and Judd Malkin; Ellen-Blair Chube; Susie L. Karkomi and Marvin Leavitt; One Bennett Park; Liz and Eric Lefkofsky; Salon 94 New York; Mirja and Ted Haffner; Vicki and Bill Hood; Susan D. Goodman and Rodney Lubeznik; The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York; and Penelope and Robert Steiner.