Ed note: On Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 7 pm, New York-based artist Laurie Simmons will be the featured guest at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for the Museum’s Tuesday Evenings at the Modern lecture series. Simmons will be in conversation with Modern curator Andrea Karnes. Simmons’ retrospective exhibition at the Modern, “Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera” opens on Oct. 14, 2018. On Nov. 13, Simmons will return to the Lecture series, this time in conversation with artist Carroll Dunham (whose works are also in the permanent collection of the Modern, and who happens to be married to Simmons).
I first encountered Laurie Simmons’ work in the mid ’80s as an undergrad at Pratt Institute in New York. The word ‘Postmodernism’ was not yet part of the art-school vernacular. My photo professors came from the formalist/modernist or street-school traditions, so to discover that there were artists using photography and imagery conceptually to address issues of gender and identity was transformational for me as a fledgling female artist. Simmons’ early color-coordinated interior series of Cibrachrome prints using miniature doll houses and figurines spoke to my personal, internal struggles, as well as the cultural collision between societal expectations on women and women’s desire to free oneself from those restrictive bonds.
Colette Copeland: Congratulations on your retrospective at the Modern. It’s amazing to see how your work has evolved over the last 40 years. Let’s start with the present day. What are you most excited about right now?
Laurie Simmons: Thanks. We’ve been working on this exhibition for the past three years, during which time I also shot my first feature-length film. So oddly, I’m most excited about the upcoming post-exhibition period where I have an open-ended amount of time in the studio, with no huge commitments or projects looming before me. I know from prior experience that during these periods of time, anything can happen; it can be a very fertile time for growth in my work.
CC: In the exhibition catalog, there’s an interview with you and Michael Auping [the Fort Worth Modern’s recently retired curator] where you discuss the difference between 1970s and 1980s feminist artists. Specifically, the necessity for the 1970s artists to create/proclaim their own movement loudly and strongly, and how the 1980s women artists did not want segregation, but to be at the epicenter of the art scene, while having a voice deconstructing and criticizing gendered stereotypes, perhaps more quietly and with humor. What shifts have you seen with regards to feminism and the art world over the past two decades?
LS: In the 1980s, I was certainly aware there were a number of female artists working in a similar way with images, yet when one is in the midst of a trend or movement, it doesn’t seem possible to consciously articulate or understand it as a phenomenon. That happens in hindsight, when art history is written.
CC: As art historians and critics did in writing about your work within the “Pictures” movement.
LS: Right. I knew that I was part of a strong, supportive group of female artists, but certainly didn’t think of myself as part of a larger movement. The term ‘Pictures Generation’ didn’t exist. In terms of my own experience, I definitely feel supported and surrounded by many more female artists today than when I first came to New York in my 20s, looking for female role models. It’s interesting that the feeling of the number of women artists creating, contributing, exhibiting and working in the arts feels so much greater than the stats show. In terms of museum directors, curators, solo exhibitions: It’s difficult to reconcile the feeling that things have gotten much better with actual reality/numbers. It’s encouraging that the two museums that are hosting my retrospective are helmed by female directors, and of course I’m working with the [Fort Worth Modern] curator Andrea Karnes… . This all feels very natural to me. But we still have a long way to go.
CC: In the same interview, you mentioned a need for new language surrounding feminism, especially for our daughters and granddaughters. Today, as an educator within the college/university system, my students look at ‘feminism’ as a dirty word. They don’t want to be associated with it.
LS: Yes, a lot of young women view ‘feminism’ as a word of exclusion, and not inclusion.
CC: I wonder how we might frame a new language that encourages egalitarianism? What might that look like in the art world?
LS: It’s hard for me to answer that question, because my visual language from day one has been about the representation of women. A women’s experience. Gender stereotypes. Every time I think I am doing something different, I realize it’s a different angle on the same themes. I am a dog with a bone!
For my recent film My Art, I had to invent new art work for the female character. If I had to invent a visual language for young men, I don’t know what that would look like. I can’t begin to imagine. I raised two girls, yet I wonder about the responsibilities we have as mothers of boys/young men. Women have studied, fought [for], and raised their own awareness for so many years — I think we’re at a point where the emphasis for change needs to be placed on boys and men. And maybe that’s our responsibility now. We have to consider their education as well as the raising of their consciousness. In the past year, there’s been so much written on the evolution of the boy. We are broadening that conversation and will see how that impacts the current situation.
CC: Our current political leaders leave me feeling very cynical.
LS: The only way we can feel any gratitude for the situation we find ourselves in is to celebrate all the change that is occurring, and occurring at what feels like breakneck speed, with toppling of some men in power who had previously gotten away with some pretty reprehensible stuff. The #metoo movement is the direct result of electing President Trump, and everyone’s frustration with the failure to bring down the Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief.
When my show opens, it will be exactly a year since the world shifted — since what we now refer to as #metoo movement articles were published in the New York Times and The New Yorker, and a new language was born. A new language for communication. I grew up in an age where language was coded. There were back channels for women to speak up and warn each other about certain conditions or people. It’s no longer hidden or private. The frustration of having a leader who is racist, sexist, and homophobic has forced many people to attempt to affect change within their ability and realm. Look how many women are running for office. There is action and an activism happening that I haven’t seen for years.
CC: You’ve reached the pinnacle of success in the art world, yet you continue to reinvent yourself with each new body of work; you don’t rest on your laurels. How have you been successful in navigating the demands of the art world with regards to production and sales versus maintaining your artistic integrity and creative freedom?
LS: I don’t mean to be disingenuous in my response to that, but the words ‘pinnacle in the art world’ are meaningless to me. I’m married to an artist, and together our careers have been a series of peaks and valleys. There were times when things were going really well, and times when we had two small kids and really worried about how it was all going to work. An artist’s life is very challenging and unpredictable. Opportunities come and go. Being an artist and living with another artist — we only feel as good as where we are with our work at that particular moment in time. An artist’s life is about continually challenging oneself, raising the bar. It’s the complete antithesis of emotional and economic security. It’s about keeping yourself and your so-called audience on their toes. It’s about challenging people not to like what you do.
One of the ways I handle art-world demands is knowing that I am the one who has to be the ultimate supporter, nurturer, and explainer of my own work. There was a time when I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my work in public — I was really shy and afraid of making mistakes. My epiphany occurred about 20 years ago when I had a mid-career survey show at a museum. It was an “If not me then who?” moment. If you want to describe it in 21st-century speak, it was the realization that I am the brand ambassador for my own work. I’m the expert.
Making work in the studio has to be a completely separate activity from all the other ancillary activities that I guess we call the “career.” There has to be laser-sharp focus on what is one’s work. That said, I never could have predicted how much of my life would revolve around the satellite activities surrounding my art work. Like designing a toy, making films, fashion projects. I never knew that there would be a rich life full of opportunities that come from being an artist. And when I talk about these opportunities, I am not talking about making money. I’m talking about amazing creative opportunities. I think that is true for artists no matter where they are in their careers.
CC: I’m excited to see your recent film My Art (2016). In reading your comments about the intention and process, I really like that your response to the lack of representation of older women in film was to make a film and star as the protagonist, despite the project taking you out of your comfort zone. At first, I thought it ironic that the character is struggling with lack of recognition in her own artistic career, given your success, but one statement resonated powerfully for me. “When we (women) find success outside the home, we have to work harder for it, and continue even later into our lives.”
LS: Many people have asked me how I wrote the Ellie character. She is single and hasn’t really achieved success in her work. Ellie’s struggle is every artist’s struggle. I have so many women artist friends and that helped make Ellie’s voice very clear in my head. Ellie kind of wrote herself. There were days that I went for a walk and Ellie was speaking to me. There were days when I wanted to tell her to shut up. She is a compilation of many women that I know, including me. Her character speaks to the loneliness of the artist’s life.
In the end, what you make is between you and yourself. That is a universal condition for making things. I love the metaphor of artist as vampires. We are like vacuum cleaners. Taking in and using everything around us to make the work. And that is a primary component of Ellie’s character.
CC: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Love Doll series. The guest-editor project you did for Wallpaper Magazine (2013) was beautifully designed, with the juxtapositions of yours and other artists’ work. As you mentioned in several articles, you discovered the life-size sex doll on a trip to Japan, shipped it home and began photographing it. I’ve been intrigued by these types of dolls since 2007 when I watched Lars and the Real Girl and the BBC documentary about men and their relationships with the dolls. (Guys and Dolls – 2002.)
I see correlations between your Love Doll series and your more recent How We See series (2015), in which the models’ eyelids are painted to look as if their eyes are open; the viewer can see them, but they cannot see the viewer. Both series blur the line between what is real and artificial, as well as evoke conflicting feelings of desire, beauty, attraction and repulsion. What are some of your thoughts surrounding the connections between these bodies of work?
LS: As you mentioned, I found the Love Doll in Japan and was very excited about working with a life-size doll versus the miniatures that I had worked with for years. I was already well into the series when I saw the films. Both [of the mentioned] films paralyzed me, and almost prevented me from continuing to work with the doll. I wasn’t interested in the prurient aspects of the doll, i.e. what it was used for. I have a tough time with the idea that someone (a man) would use that doll as a stand-in for a real person or relationship – but that’s me… .
I was interested in the scale of the doll and moving it from scene to scene. There are only a couple of images where the doll is naked. I remember one shoot when I was very uncomfortable photographing the doll nude. She is kneeling on the floor. My mother’s toy poodle ran into the room and the tenor of the scene softened. It became about a girl playing with her dog.
The Love Doll series was the beginning of my work in human scale and immersion in Japanese culture. After that series, I began working on the Kugurumi series that involves real people wearing masks. I was interested in how people experience life living as a fantasy character. The inspiration for How We See came from watching a lot of Japanese online make-up tutorials where girls painted eyes on their eyelids. I thought it was a rich metaphor for online culture — the culture of selfies and the idea that we never know who we are talking to or seeing, or who is seeing us.
CC: Will you share a funny or memorable story about something that’s happened to you over the course of your career?
LS: One of my first shows was in Chicago. It was a low-budget affair and I had to hang my own work. I had never hung my work before and wasn’t very good at it. I had problems getting the nails in the wall and had to use crazy glue. Unfortunately, I literally glued three fingers together and I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. The same evening, after the opening, everyone went to a Chinese restaurant. It was probably only $7-10 for dinner, but that was a lot for me at the time. A friend from New York was there and tried to pay for my dinner, and the Chicago art dealer slapped his wrist and said, “We don’t do that here. Everyone pays their own way.”
On the other extreme, I was once part of a three-person show in Oslo, and we had a celebratory dinner with the Queen of Norway. It was in a huge hall at the museum with an elaborate 10-course meal, and I remember thinking: ‘Oh My God! I am shaking hands with the Queen, but I can’t pay my Con-Ed bill when I get home.’
Again: On Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 7pm, Laurie Simmons will be the featured guest at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for the Museum’s Tuesday Evenings at the Modern lecture series. The lecture is free and open to the public. Simmons’ exhibition at the Modern, “Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera” opens on Oct. 14, 2018.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.