LORNA SIMPSON’S NEW ‘DARKENING’ PAINTINGS ARE MASSIVE
May 21, 2019
“I don’t have this kind of interior attachment to failure…as an artist I’m constantly challenging myself. Risk is involved,” said Lorna Simpson on the eve of Darkening, her first solo exhibition with Hauser & Wirth, one of the world’s most prestigious, powerhouse galleries at its Manhattan location. She was speaking with Studio Museum Director, Thelma Golden, and the intelligence, poise and achievement of the two women was dazzling to witness.
Although not present, there was a third woman intertwined energetically into Simpson’s monumentally, exquisite presentation of atmospheric paintings: the poet Robin Coste Lewis. Lewis a winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, for Voyage of the Sable Venus, was the first African-American to ever win for a debut book of poetry. An excerpt from one of Lewis’ poems offers both visual and literary texture to the opulent blues that dominate the color field in Simpson’s body of work. Posted on a gallery wall the poem welcomes viewers into a third space of shared imagination between Lewis, Simpson and the present moment. It reads:
Using Black to Paint Light: Walking Through a Matisse Exhibit
Thinking about the Arctic and Matthew Henson (an excerpt)
The unanticipated shock: so much believed to be white is actually – strikingly –
blue. Endless blueness. White is blue. An ocean wave freezes in place. Blue.
Whole glaciers, large as Ohio, floating masses of static water. All of them pale
frosted azuls. It makes me wonder – yet again – was there ever such a thing
as whiteness? I am beginning to grow suspicious. An open window.
I am blue.
I am a frozen blue ocean.
I am a wave struck cold in midair.
The wave is nude beneath her blue dress.
Her skin is blue.
– Robin Coste Lewis
What Lewis, Golden and Simpson share, in their respective roles as writer, museum director and artist, is an epic courageousness to assert both their talent and their individuality in challenging institutional terrain. As Golden pointed out in the Q & A, the massive scale of Simpson’s paintings, made with ink, feels ambitious – some as large as approx. 9ft x 12ft. Not simply in terms of material scale, but also in regard to the politics of painting, a field traditionally dominated by white men. However, this reading of the work did not seem to resonate with Simpson, her response, “It doesn’t feel ambitious? It feels like I have the freedom to explore.”
Working at the intersection of abstraction and figuration — several of the works intertwine imagery of arctic landscapes, black women and text — there appears to be an unspoken conversation between obfuscation and visibility. Emotionally charged environments wafting in varied tonalities, coalesce into sublime spaces that do not offer answers, only mesmerizing contemplation.
Simpson noted that, “Blue has this an amazing gravitational pull,” and added, “I realize I work very monochromatically.” There is a graceful elegance that can be found in Simpson’s treatment of each and every canvas on view, and is echoed in the artist herself. The mysterious women at the center of her paintings are culled from Simpson’s archive of Ebony and Jet magazines, resonating eloquently with the sensual beauty of the arctic, offering a fascinating juxtaposition of content.
This exhibition is best seen up-close and in person. The sensory absorption of inky colors — purples, plums, midnight blue, blue-black, white and grey — will resonate with anyone who speaks their language. A series of smaller works, “surreal portraits” that overlay several women’s faces, offer pops of red and yellow that break up the visual experience of the exhibition. Perhaps offering a breath in another field of play, before returning to Simpson’s generous sharing of what she described as, “A very very interior conversation with myself.”