If you’ve found it difficult to create new work during a global pandemic, you’re in good company.
“The first month was like, ‘how do we do this?’ And to a certain extent realize, ‘oh, it will drive me insane if I think through more than 15 to 30 days in advance,'” says Lorna Simpson.
A selection of collaged work by the acclaimed artist is part of a new online solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, titled “Give Me Some Moments.” The digital show encompasses works originally created for a planned solo exhibition at the gallery’s Hong Kong location for early March, as well as several works created in the last few weeks while in quarantine.
Simpson, a bicoastal native New Yorker, has been in California for the past two weeks. Her art has always been rooted in process, and although she initially had difficulty creating new work while prioritizing the collective demands of the current moment — day-to-day safety protocols and health, and the well-being of her daughter and her daughter’s friends staying with her — the artist has found some solace in reentering a space of creation.
“This moment requires a lot of attention to practicalities,” she says. “In some ways to be able to return to work with some of the structures I had before this, is nice — I can submerge and go back into ways of working that are familiar to me, which are comfortable. And at the same time, the way in doesn’t mean necessarily that the result won’t be different.”
Simpson last year was a recipient of the J. Paul Getty Medal; over the course of her career, the 59-year-old artist has been recognized by leading art institutions, including the Whitney, Hirshhorn, and Pérez Art Museum. “Darkening,” her most recent exhibition — and her first with Hauser & Wirth, in 2019 — was anchored by large-scale, blue-hued paintings.
Her studio continues to be Brooklyn-based, but the situation has necessitated the creation of an annex studio, in a small room of her house in Los Feliz. “As I was leaving New York I had some collage material sent out,” says the artist. Among that material is what has informed her “Earth and Sky” series, which encompasses Thirties geological imagery juxtaposed with more domestic imagery and portraits from archival Ebony magazines. Working from a table of assorted images, she likens the process to sifting through a haystack. In California, the haystack is still there, but more contained.
The artist has described her process as a window into her subconscious. For one of her newest works created this year, “Lyra night sky styled in NYC,” she collaged a Thirties illustrated constellation map as a hairpiece atop one of Ebony’s archival portraits. When she sent it to a friend, they pointed out that the Lyra constellation in the work was on view that very evening. The Corona Borealis — the “northern crown” — is also visible in the righthand of the picture, a nod to the current times as well.
“So it’s funny coincidences like that,” Simpson says. “I don’t have a full conscious funnel brain response to all of this; no, I think that takes months and time to comprehend, and all I can do is be open to what I’m making, and leave a more overarching summation of this experience for much, much later.”
The online viewing room opens with a video, shot portrait-style, which shows Simpson opening the top cabinet drawer to unveil the title card for the exhibit, as well as close-ups of the work, her workspace and outdoor imagery. She describes this, too, as a walk, both through her process and her imagination as an artist.
The online exhibition is accompanied by a recommended reading list — a collection of poetry by Robin Coste Lewis and two non-fiction works by Elizabeth Alexander — as well as a Spotify playlist of songs by jazz pianist Jason Moran, who Simpson has collaborated with in the past. Sandwiched in the playlist is another of Moran’s artist collaborations, “Artists Ought to Be Writing,” which melds artist-philosopher Adrian Piper’s ideology with jazz improvisation.
In sparse text accompanying the works online, Simpson touches on the idea of fragmentation in her work. “The notion of fragmentation, especially of the body, is prevalent in our culture, and it’s reflected in my works,” she’s quoted mid-page. “We’re fragmented not only in terms of how society regulates our bodies but in the way we think about ourselves.”
While showing work in a digital space might underscore this idea — it’s hard to replicate the ephemeral experience of physical proximity to a work through a screen — Simpson notes that her art is already rooted in the digital, and she often shares works and pieces-in-progress on her Instagram. And while she remains separated from her primary studio, she’s found ways to collaborate within the micro community of quarantine; one of her daughter’s friends staying with them, Joshuah Melnick, helped her edit the video piece.
Continuing to make work with an approach of uncensored experimentation remains paramount to her practice, but Simpson nods to recent conversations with friends — both about her art and informal ones — as a source of stability and even inspiration. The title of the recent collage “Walk With Me,” a surreal composite of faces, came from Simpson asking a friend for the first phrase that came to mind in relation to the work.
“I have found myself much more than ever in conversation with friends — and not deep conversations,” says the artist. “There’s a more conscious effort to make time to touch base with one another and just talk about anything, and I’m really treasuring that.
“Over the past eight weeks those conversations have been really amazing, and that I would say is the huge difference for me right now,” she adds.
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