Laurie Simmons, Clothes Make the Man: Works from 1990-1994 @Mary Boone

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the back office area.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 6 pigment prints, 1994, each 35×53 inches, in editions of 5
  • 1 cibachrome print, 1994, 24×20 inches, in an edition of 10
  • 5 pigment prints, 1991, each 84×48 inches, in editions of 5
  • 6 sculptures, 1991, made from clothing, nylon/fiberglass, and wood, each sized roughly 35x12x15 inches, unique

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While Laurie Simmons continues to actively make new work (she had a gallery show of recent material at Salon 94 Bowery earlier this spring), this show rewinds back several decades to the late 1980s and early 1990s. It pairs one of Simmons’ best known and most highly regarded series with a more obscure body of work that followed it, offering an opportune chance to see how her artistic thinking was evolving during those years.

Begun in 1987, the Walking & Lying Objects series took sculptural objects from everyday domestic life and incongruously perched them on anonymous female legs. Their commentary on the objectification of women was obvious, but those observations were delivered with a biting feminist wit that made delicious fun of the carnal desires of men. One approach used platters of food as the enticement, with a juicy steak dinner on a plate and a turkey feast with all the trimmings on a silver platter set on seated, spread legs. The allusions to women being “served up” are hard to miss, with their bodies replaced by mouth watering meat ready for consumption.

A second approach simply placed singular food items directly on torsos with shapely bottoms and lithe standing legs, as though the foods were walking (sometimes in flirty poses or high heels). Here the plump curves of a ripe red tomato, the gooey glazing of a round donut, and the gentle bend of a hot dog in a bun mimic the roundness of the female bodies. Even without making carnal connections to the phallic shape of the hot dog or the hole of the donut, these food images are rich in symbolic desire. But they also incisively highlight the realities of women being reduced to their surfaces, where exterior appearances become shiny eye-catching entertainments for men. Even several decades since they were made, these pictures and their sharp messages remain as powerful and relevant as ever.

Throughout her career, Simmons has most often used female forms (toys, dolls, etc.) as her subjects, so the Café of the Inner Mind series she made in 1994 is a notable departure. The images pose male ventriloquist dolls, with their blankly smiling faces, in a variety of quasi-narrative scenes where the gathered men drift off into daydreams that are represented by thought bubble images that float above their heads. We see men at dinner, in bars, in a public bathroom, or simply resting on the stairs or walking alone in a field, their thoughts wandering far from the particular activity at hand.

As a simplified taxonomy of male cravings, the images are filled with incisive humor. In Simmons’ pictures, men often think about women, their secret wishes ranging from nurturing embraces to legs in high heels and bodies with exaggerated cartoon curves, with several men moving beyond just one woman to a ménage à trois or a parade of bare bottoms. Homosexual urges are seemingly just as common, with cowboys, muscle men, and even a Mexican drag show (complete with sombreros, maracas, and Day of the Dead masks) popping into various heads. And for a few, their interior life is a straightforward masculine cliché, a steak dinner or fighter jet and phallic missile becoming the objects of their private attention.

The actual dolls that Simmons used for these set ups are shown nearby as sculptural objects, with each nearly identical man trying to make himself different via his choice of clothing or hairstyle. But of course, they all look the same for the most part, the satire of male individualism (and vanity) delivered with understated punch.

Simmons is clearly at her best when she thoughtfully unpacks and recontextualizes gender roles. What makes both of these bodies of work durably engaging is the way she builds knowing comedy on top of surgically precise examinations of male urges. It’s not at all easy to deliver biting social commentary with a splash of well placed humor, but it is this aptly constructed tension that keeps these works fresh and pertinent.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range from $35000 for the smallest print to $60000-70000 for the mid sized prints and $90000-95000 for the largest prints. Simmons’ photographs have become more readily available at auction in recent years, with prices ranging between $1000 and $100000.

Read more about: Laurie Simmons, Mary Boone Gallery

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