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.