Lorna Simpson at the Baltic: Take another look

Sara Jaspan, Exhibitions Editor

This retrospective of artist Lorna Simpson’s work is more than a backward glance – it asks big questions about how we perceive the world.

Given the high regard in which she is held, it may come as some surprise that the current exhibition of film, photography and drawing by Brooklyn-born artist, Lorna Simpson, at the Baltic, Gateshead, comes as part of the first European retrospective of her work. Indeed to play host to such a significant and long overdue show is a real coup for the northerly city, putting it alongside the likes of Paris, Munich and Berlin.

The exhibition spans the 30 years of Simpson’s career to-date and includes key works from throughout the different stages of her development. The large-scale, conceptually driven photo-text pieces she began making in the mid-1980s, and which secured her position on the international stage, are all apportioned a good chunk of wall space, and rightly so – they demand the Baltic’s big white walls. Yet her more recent experiments with film and collections, collage and drawing are equally present and just as compelling.

To play host to such a significant and long overdue show is a real coup for the North East

Such wide-ranging variety is of course the hallmark of any good retrospective, but also chiefly attributable to Simpson’s unconfined approach as an artist. Her work could never be grouped by medium alone; instead it is the themes and ideas that she chooses to explore which remain consistent (though never static). Simpson’s signature preoccupations with identity and memory, gender and history, and fact and fiction reverberate throughout the two floors, while subtler inflections – questions of space and internal/external perception – add a further, more curious dimension.

You see this for example in The Car (1995): it’s a seemingly life-sized photographic window onto a quiet urban-enclave. Looking in, you feel the sensation of coolness radiated from stone walls, and the perceptible still that follows after withdrawing from the public arena of the street into an empty side-alley. Tucked away to the left is a small, unobtrusive car inside which you would never suspect the presence of another person (or persons).

Shifting from the image to the short side panel of text, however, you realise that the view is less of a space, so much as the memory of a space – or rather, it’s a representation of what a lived experience might have looked like from the outside. The words read as counter-part to the image, the speaker recalling with pleasure the sensation of being safely, secretly stowed within an abandoned vehicle, listening to the distant sounds of the street.

The Car is one of a series of works collectively titled Public Sex. A number of others from the group, including The Rock, also feature. Despite the themes of liberation or outward display that the series’ name might suggest, all of the works included seem more concerned with exploring small and temporary pockets of internal or private space within a public setting.

In complete contrast to such subtleties, be sure not to miss Chess (2013) – a tightly-packed video and sound instillation. Here, six mirrored versions of a visibly aging Simpson challenge a further six images of herself (dressed as a man) to a game of chess. The piece is accompanied by the lurching tune and agile hands of a Jazz playing pianist. Again, this is a piece in which perception is challenged, and nothing is quite as it seems – which might be the mantra of the show as a whole.

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