For nearly three decades, Lorna Simpson (b. 1960, Brooklyn, NY) has been celebrated as an artist, photographer, filmmaker and thinker. She is perhaps best known for her work that asserts the female form as a site for discourse on racialized and gendered modes of visual representation. From small pictures and intimate gestures to multimedia meditations and installations, Simpson’s works remain unrivaled in their courage to challenge and critique traditional modes of addressing identity through art. Her photo-based works, while staying true to classical photography’s valorization of pose, gesture and composition, rework subjectivity by introducing text to either mask, dismember or recontextualize a subject. In works such as She (1992), the female form is beheaded by the word “Female,” which comes to replace a tangible subject identity with a hypercontextualized representation. This active deviance from portraiture’s claim that the face is the window to the soul is a defining element in Simpson’s work, which introduces gray into the black-and-white binaries of absence and presence, loss and possession, and the desired and the undesirable.
Duet is the cinematic expression of the themes of isolationism, escapism and self-effacement addressed in Simpson’s earlier photographic works. In the installation, two images are projected onto a single screen, and the border between the two images becomes an imaginative site for visual and contextual exchange. Scenes of two girls playing a duet on the piano interact with scenes of two women conversing about memory. As the video progresses, subjects disappear into the “no space” gluing the two images together. Kellie Jones, Associate Professor of Art History at Columbia University, asserts that Duet “moves to create a larger dialogue with the language of film by using a split screen, allowing two distinct scenes to play before our eyes and in our heads at the same time.” The aural and visual simultaneity of the installation challenges traditional notions of effective communication and rewrites the autonomy of the subjects of the screen into a communal identity.
As the inaugural recipient of The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize for innovation, promise and creativity, Lorna Simpson has proven herself as an artist committed to exposing the social invisibility of the black female by highlighting both the impulse to self-express and the immense difficulty in finding the ideal language for that expression. This installation of Duet ran concurrently with Simpson’s first mid-career retrospective, on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art from March 1 to May 6, 2007, and traveled to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Michigan and the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, later this year.