Laurie Simmons, Color Pictures/Deep Photos 2007-2022 @56 Henry

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color photographs, framed in white, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are inkjet or Flex prints in resin with various combinations of plastic, wood, fabric, acrylic/latex paint, leather, and marker, made in 2007/2022. Each is sized roughly 11x13x3 inches and is unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Laurie Simmons’s recent body of work offers an unusual opportunity to think more closely about how artistic ideas evolve over time, and about how an artist bridges from one discrete project to another, remixing those ideas and the way they take shape as finished artworks. Across her five decades (and counting) of active art making, Simmons has repeatedly and incisively probed themes of domesticity, femininity, and gender roles, often using dolls of various kinds and doll house furnishings as subjects in her meticulously staged photographic setups. Her newest works reimagine an older series of lesser known photocollages (made a decade and half ago and essentially shelved by Simmons at that time) in a more intimate and sculptural form, turning them into three-dimensional jewel box objects with tactile presence.

A quick survey of some of Simmons’s earlier projects helps to provide some relevant historical context. Simmons first began making setups of dolls posed inside staged doll house settings in the mid 1970s, creating scenes of throwback 1950s era wifely domesticity, particularly of women in the kitchen and bathroom going through the motions of cooking and cleaning. By the mid 1980s, Simmons has pushed those first ideas in a new direction, using projections from interior design and lifestyle magazines as backdrops for plastic dolls that were now color coordinated with their eerily matchy-matchy surroundings. In the early 2000s, Simmons once again returned to some of these same themes, collaging together illustrations and photographic imagery in her series “The Instant Decorator”; here her resulting interiors become more richly textured and intricately imagined, and the scenes themselves had more figures placed in more charged situations, often watching each other, interacting, or caught in states of partial undress. At about the same time, in a separate project called “Long House”, Simmons also returned to staging moody physical setups with doll furniture, to which she now digitally added some of these same types of illustrated or photographic figures, pushing further toward the atmospheric terrain of film noir, with sirens and would be heroines on the run captured in lonely bedrooms and bathrooms after dark. Stepping back and taking in this whole artistic progression, we can see Simmons consistently experimenting with the aesthetic push and pull of 2D versus 3D, and trying out different combinations of the two via staging, collaging, and assembling, to create scenarios with various kinds of implied dynamics and psychologies.

So when Simmons moved forward to her “Color Pictures” (made in 2007-2009), she brought along aesthetic pieces and technical approaches from all of these previous projects. The works were once again staged in shadowy constructed interiors furnished with tiny plastic doll house furniture, but the women Simmons chose to pose in these rooms were now digitally drawn from amateur porn sites on the Internet (rather than hand drawn models from catalogs, illustrations, or cartoons), in a sense upping the ante on the level of explicit provocation and visual agency she was willing to experiment with. Simmons worked through three separate possible scenarios: women alone, women in groups, and women posed as subjects for male artists. On their own, the women variously bend and reveal themselves, some overtly masturbating, others reveling in being watched (Simmons interrupting the most explicit areas with panties and lingerie overdrawn in marker, ink, and in once case, fashioned from clay); in pairs and in groups, these poses are multiplied out, creating layers of bodies acting and reacting, seemingly largely unaware of each other, like a harem. And when the famous artists are introduced (in black and white, versus the full color images of the anonymous women), Walt Disney, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others turn the posing women into objects to be transformed into art, their motions of drawing and painting variously oriented toward (or away from) the nearby bodies.

The prints from the earlier “The Instant Decorator” series were decently large, at roughly 40×30 inches, which allowed viewers to get deeper into their details, and Simmons’s original intention at the time was to stick with a large format approach for this next series. But whether it was the more explicit nature of the resulting collages or the compositional ideas that were going in several directions at once, Simmons decided not move forward with the series in that form, and the pictures languished largely unseen until recently, when Simmons returned to them once again.

In their 2022 incarnation as “Deep Photos”, the original “Color Pictures” have been scaled down significantly, so that they now require an active peering inward to actually see them. Each photocollage has been soaked in thick clear resin and framed in a chunky white frame, giving each work an obvious physicality and object quality. Simmons has then gone further, to embed actual pieces of tiny furniture onto the surface of the pictures, creating the appearance of sculptural depth and spatial dimensionality, and to layer the resin in ways that have allowed her to insert small objects (like a tiny woven pillow) inside the matrix or to overpaint layers above the original collage. And in a few cases, she has extended mirrored or checkerboard floor motifs out onto the lower inside edge of the frame, again pulling the scene out to meet us.

While not quite the same as shoebox dioramas, these new interpretations do offer a feeling of sculptural front and back, and action taking place in between. The strongest of the works remain the ones that feature women on their own, as now the spaces around them feel more full and enveloping, and the jarring friction between the kitchy plastic toy furniture and the seductiveness of the poses feels all the more fraught, the playing and performing, seeing and being seen, getting intermingled. By pulling us in with the surface objects, Simmons is acknowledging the voyeurism going on, and in many ways, leaning into it.

The physical interventions in the collages that feature the male artist/model combinations feel less integral to the patriarchal exchanges we are witnessing, the crafty decoration not amplifying the tension in any meaningful way, except perhaps for the work on view in the front window, where Walt Disney watches an elongated woman from a thicket of lipsticks, with one physical example drifting out onto the frame edge to pull us in further. The fireplaces and hanging light fixtures in the collages with multiple women are somewhat more successful as stand-ins for stylized mood, both amplifying and subtly mocking the scenarios Simmons has envisioned.

While these collaged works likely function better at this smaller, more intimate scale than they did much larger, most of the resulting works still don’t quite hit the center of the target in terms of biting with the right force or direction. But if the idea of embedding the pieces of tiny furniture in the resin-coated face of photographic works turns out to be one with broader promise, which it seems like it just might be, the fact that these first trapped-in-amber efforts haven’t found the optimization point hardly matters, especially given that they are reworkings of earlier attempts. The nugget of the next artistic iteration is perhaps here; how it takes shape when incorporated into the artistic thought process from the beginning (and then further refined) is the kind of alluring question that might just take Simmons back into the studio once again.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $18000 each. Simmons’ photographs have become more readily available at auction in recent years, with recent prices ranging between roughly $3000 and $100000.

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JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the basement gallery space and on the second floor. ... Read on.

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