From Meryl Streep to ventriloquist dummies, Laurie Simmons has had some unusual collaborators. A look at a career-spanning show by a photographer who populates fantastic worlds.
Brandis Friedman: Toys, CPR dummies, sex dolls and Meryl Streep. Forty years of film, collage and photographs at the MCA feature the work of an artist fascinated by dolls. But she wasn’t always.
Laurie Simmons: I never played with dolls. I was really sort of an ADD peripatetic kid. I was much more likely to cut the hair and the heads off, and scatter them all around. But I loved the idea of a miniature world. I love the idea, when my mother was reading to me, of getting inside the book and walking around that fantasy, and I think that’s propelled a lot of my thinking about these fictive spaces.
Friedman: Laurie Simmons makes dolls appear lifelike in unsettling ways. And she can make people look unreal in an equally disturbing manner.
Naomi Beckwith, curator, MCA Chicago: This is a theme that runs throughout all of Laurie’s work: this relationship between what is real and what is fake. She’s a photographer and yet – Laurie actually studied printmaking in school and never formally studied photography. She’s self-taught completely. She makes photographs, but photos are just one of many ways in which she expresses herself and one of the many tools that she uses to work through ideas.
Friedman: Those ideas are rooted in her upbringing in suburban New York.
Simmons: My father was an amateur photog and not a very good one, and the way he’d pose us children was, he’d find a spot in the garden and put us right in the center. Everything was symmetrical and the subject was literally plunked into the center of the frame, and I sort of liked it as a composition. And I liked the fact that I was an anti-photographer in trying to almost go for the dumbest, most naïve picture I could come up with.
Initially, there was a challenge in wresting emotion from a doll’s face, but after a while I felt like I was more comfortable finding emotion in a doll’s face than in a human face, which is why I’ve only recently taken up portraiture. I finally feel ready to work with a human because I felt so much more comfortable in the terrain of working with stand-ins and appropriations of human figures, puppets and dummies and dolls.
I wanted to use dolls to create a memory of my own childhood. I wanted to set up that childhood. I didn’t feel comfortable hiring actors and making huge sets, so I had to think of a way to express these images, so it seemed like the easiest thing was to just grab all these little stand-ins and make something that looked like my past or was reminiscent of my past in some way.
Friedman: Recent work includes portraits of people with painted-on eyes – and painted-on clothing. One of the models is the artist’s daughter, the writer and actress Lena Dunham.
Simmons appeared in Lena Dunham’s attention-grabbing independent film, “Tiny Furniture,” portraying an artist who works with miniatures.
Simmons: It wasn’t my story. It was Lena’s story about another mother who was an artist but I was really comfortable acting in “Tiny Furniture” because frankly I thought probably two dozen people would see the movie and that would be it.
Friedman: Simmons cast Meryl Streep in her film, “The Music of Regret” – on view at the MCA. And she staged domestic scenes of life-size Japanese “companion” dolls.
The artist has taught at Yale and Columbia universities. We asked her how she talks about photography to people who’ve grown up with the internet culture.
Simmons: That is such a big question and it’s certainly a question that I address to my students. How do you find yourself in this photography blitz where everyone is a photographer? What floors me about Instagram is how many beautiful pictures there are that you can see on your iPhone. I mean, you can just scroll all day.
It’s like candy, like too much candy, you almost feel sick afterwards. I think the challenge for young artists or young photographers is to find a way in and around Instagram, to find a way, depending on what they want to do, to find a way that they can have a voice that’s either smack in the center of that and stands out, or is completely separate from that and stands out.
I love digital culture much more than I should for my age. I can’t really put it down.
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