Last updated: August 20, 2019
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Lorna Simpson studied photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She explored the highly original field of creating photographs working on the word-image relationship. These two semiotic systems are complementary. The accompanying description of her photogravure, Counting (1991), summarizes the artist’s interests very well: Simpson believes that art, especially photography, has the ability to change the world for the better. But the issues addressed in her work are not easy ones.

She alludes racism, slavery, and other aspects of African-American experience in society.These concerns are not presented in a straightforward or aggressive manner; instead, Simpson uses an approach filled with metaphor, suggestion, and biography. Her inspiration stems from her own experience, the current political climate, and African-American history. Although her work falls within the narrative tradition prevalent in African-American art, it is narrative open to many different interpretations. Her messages are both personal and universal at the same time and addressed to people of all races.Lorna Simpson’s art is deeply rooted in historical, ideological and social issues of her time. Her background and photographs provide a bitter and ironic commentary to the condition of the African American woman. Her art defamiliarizes the traditional patriarchal way of envisaging the female body; she exposes the invisibility and anonymity of blackness in the representation of whites.

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This paper argues that Lorna Simpson’s art exposes the eroticizing male gaze of the female body through the interplay between word and image in her artwork.Utilizing symbols and embedding clues function as a subversive counter-representing the black and female body from an “objectifying” male perspective. This technique allows a dialogical configuration of the body’s figuration and its re-signification in the process of perception. In her now canonical article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey stated that: In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.

The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure that is styled accordingly.In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed, as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.

A woman’s represented as “erotic spectacle” are the traditional patriarchal ways of envisioning and valuing the female body.Her photographs denounce this bias. Reversing it by hiding it from a predatory gaze. We no longer celebrate the female body as an incarnation of masculine desire, but rather expose a woman’s fear and repugnance of despoiling eroticized gaze. The gesture plays a very important part in her work; a certain position can re-signify the whole picture; displaying confinement and avoidance of external gaze. This is signified by the juxtaposition of word and image conflicting with each other as in the Counting photograph.This picture displays three images in vertical succession: a black woman’s chest and lips, a hut and a series of braids.

The common denominator among the three images is the difficulty of localization and identification: all three are motifs of anonymity – the simple, unadorned, unsexualized but feminine fragment of a woman’s body, the brick hut which may be a former slave house and the equally anonymous braids which have become an object of decoration. In her article on the recodification of the body in Lorna Simpson’s work, Beryl J. Wright notes that:Rather than offering alternative body adornments that could indicate oppositional or multiple persona to counter dominant, normative codes of dress or undress, Simpson’s figures wear either a shapeless white cotton shift, a basic black dress, or a tailored suit. Minor variations in shoe or hairstyle provide minimal visual clues to the character of the subject. Whether as a full or partial figure, Simpson never presents the body for complete scrutiny.

Concealment or effacement is accomplished by either cropping out the head or, more significantly, photographing the body from the back.These devices direct the viewer’s gaze to another body site or block the gaze through Simpson’s refusal to acknowledge it, thus thwarting a preconditioned reading of physical or psychological characteristics through the lens of feminist psychoanalysis, instrumental determinism, or universal humanism. Concealment or effacement of body elements, particularly of the face, is an act of resistance that denies the presumption of unrestricted access to the exterior body and to the interior life within.By concealing all or part of the face, Simpson also enables the studio model to achieve her iconic role as “Every-black-woman” and avoids any unintended conflation between the individual and the generic image.

In many respects, Counting is about effacementBlack hair and braids, masks and shoes are emblematic of ideologies and cultural perceptions as well as nested symbolizations of racial and gender issues. Both metonymically configure the body and institute a subversive comment on the external context that has pushed them into marginality and invisibility. As Mercer remarks:Hair is never a straightforward biological “fact” because it is almost always groomed, prepared, cut, concealed, and generally “worked upon” by human hands. Such practices socialize hair, making it the medium of significant “statements” about self and society and the codes of value that bind them, or don’t. In this way hair is merely a raw material, constantly processed by cultural practices, which thus invest it with “meanings” and value . . .

. Hair functions as a key “ethnic signifier” because, compared with bodily shape or facial features, it can be changed more easily by cultural practices such as straightening.Caught on the cusp between self and society, nature and culture, the malleability of hair makes it a sensitive area of expression. One of the pictures that exemplify Mercer’s statement is the 1988 Stereo Styles. The foregrounding of hair signifies the defamiliarization of the traditional perception that identified racial otherness on the basis of physical features. By laying bare the hair, Simpson is shattering the aura of difference and strangeness, showing that black hair is just like any other hair.However, there is also a parodic implication in her exposure, as the hair does not become anonymous and familiar unless it is separated from the originating body.

Simpson overtly problematized the racial and sexual erasure of difference in the cultural construction of identity in her 1991 photograph entitled Same. The six figures are presented with their back at the beholder making it difficult to determine sexuality or race. Hair braids become umbilical cords, the characters inter-signify one another through their sexual and racial identity.Individualities are completely erased and suggest labelling on the grounds of sameness of race and/or sex is responsible for their effacement.

The traditional, patriarchal representation of the female body has always had the tendency to efface women’s individuality beneath the concupiscence of her erotic depictions. Luce Irigaray pointed to this aspect in her book on Freud’s psychoanalysis: Whence the mystery that a woman represents in a culture claiming to count everything, to number everything by numbers, to inventory everything as individualities.She is neither one nor two.

Rigorously speaking, she cannot either be identified as one person, or as two. She resists all adequate definition. Further, she has no ‘proper’ name. And her sexual organ, which is not one organ, is counted as none. The negative, the underside, the reverse, of the only visible and morphologically designatable organ […] Lorna Simpson’s work strangely echoes Irigaray’s comments on the women’s denial of sexuality by the male other on grounds of lack of recognition as the same.

This failure of identification has a paradoxical effect in that it, instead of foregrounding the particularity of the female body as other it instead creates an undifferentiated mass of female bodies all united by the same sexual designation. When individuality is equated with gender or race, it fades away; Simpson seems to be suggesting. Perhaps one of the most straightforward examples of the equation between her work and the implied gaze is Untitled (two necklines) from 1989.

The two necklines appear in parallel as filtered through goggles; perfectly identical but perceived only through the mediation of a superimposed frame. The body does not become gendered nor does its configuration display a too overt sexuality. As Helen McDonald explains: Some women who are posited as “Other” in Western cultures adopted the project of critically re-visioning the female body in art for their own interests. In the process they reintroduced questions of authorship and identity that deconstruction had once displaced.

…] in the course of analyzing these works, it becomes clear that the multiplicity of political allegiances and aesthetic strategies in the works rendered them ambiguous. This ambiguity complicated the already difficult relationship between art and politics. This ambiguity translates its reference to an external plane of perception and cultural construction of reality. The dialogic nature of her pictures allow the artist to express issues in a highly effective and original manner, which estranges ingrained mechanisms of perception.