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on the cover of lorna simpson‘s new book, Lorna Simpson Collageavailable now from Chronicle Books, there is a cropped image of a black woman’s face, kohl-rimmed eyes and a diamond necklace dangling in negative space. In place of her hair is another head, a woman emerging in profile, a cross-sectional view of a brain revealing neurons that spread out like trees. Collage is the latest from Simpson Riunite & Ice series, in which the same cutout appears in serial repeat, each time his head is encapsulated by something supernatural and fey: squid-ink black paint, a milk-colored moon, glass shards, or clouds, with a ladder leading up to where her shoulder might be, the woman her own destiny to the sky.
Simpson has long worked with hair and its profound intersection with identity. On “wigs” (1994), 21 lithographs of silky braids, spirals, locks, and waves cascading from a wall. In his set of 10 instant film images, “Stereo Styles” (1988), a young woman’s hair is braided, gathered, and combed upwards. There is very little real hair in any of the four collage series in Lorna Simpson Collage, which collects a total of 150 collages from 2011 to 2017; in addition to Riunite & Icethere is Ebony, Jetand the last, Earth and Sky. On every page, portraits of women cut from vintage Ebony Y Jet the ads smile and stare, flirtatious or dreamy, their hair painted and combined in puddles of color that spread over the page like oil spills. Although we know that they once posed and styled their faces to sell products to other black women, in Simpson’s hand, none of them are beholden to any particular identity or occupation. They are massive.
On an interview with him Paris ReviewSimpson explained that his interest in found images stemmed from “a discovery I made of these old Ebony my grandmother’s magazines I found them really satisfying to watch, because they’re so contextual… For me, the images go back to my childhood, but they’re also a lens through which I look at the last 50 years of American history.” true joy that can be extracted from collages, the almost tenderness with which Simpson adorns his models.In “Earth & Sky #38” (2017), a woman’s hairstyle has become a block of asphalt, and she looks up at a honeyed amber rock. I know this because, in earth and sky, in which hair turns to stone, Simpson has left the titles or numerical encodings of each gem. “Earth & Sky #32” (2016) features a woman in a Grecian dress that doubles as a hood; it’s not her hair but her backdrop that is crystallized and shiny (fluorite, actually).
In it Ebony series, the densest in the book, watercolor and ink are used so richly that the women become pelagic deities, with black hair like Medusa snakes, electric blue jellyfish, or fiery yellow coral. The images still look wet, as if opening the book is peeling off Rorschach blots. As the pages progress, the faces get larger; orange and purple crowns bloom like flowers. There are also men (I counted 18), with pompadours and afros painted with ice cream scoop flourishes. Some wear sunglasses. Some are quite young. On Jet, some women, their hair painted like feather crowns, are combined with captions and tidbits from the pages of magazines: “Where’s the third man in Till’s lynching?”; “The strange sit-in that changed a city.” They make clear another layer of Simpson’s process, sometimes racially charged, sometimes downright abstract.
In the book’s introduction, the poet Elizabeth Alexander, in a format not unlike the collages that follow, dreamy and purposeful, writes: “In Lorna Simpson’s collages… black women’s heads of hair are galaxies unto themselves. , solar systems, moonscapes, volcanic interiors… It’s twisty, murky and completely alive… Watercolor is the perfect medium for Simpson here because of how it holds light and appears translucent. But it’s also a wash, a shadow cast on what we can’t know about these women.”
Not being able to fully understand Simpson’s themes is, at least here, the key. They are too complex, too brilliant, for that. As Alexander would say, this speaks to the voluminous nature of women themselves, and also to their universality. On Interview magazine, Simpson referred to the “prevailing assumption” that a work’s narration is autobiographical if the subject is a woman, “which is limiting.” In other interview with the Art Hoe CollectiveSimpson described a frequent question he is asked: “’What is it like to do a job that has black content?’…When I look in the mirror, I don’t see black content. I look at myself. To refer to the self, devoid of any instance of “otherness” from a myopic and inevitably white lens, is also to gain the freedom of omnipresence. Simpson is into these women (and men), though he has always respected the line between autobiography and storytelling, that space where the two collapse on each other. The binary between them is soluble and soluble, like paint.