A native New Yorker, Laurie Simmons’ interest in fabricated identity comes with a distinctly urban level of acceptance toward subjective truth. Using props, makeup and staged scenes, Simmons creates photos that probe societal myths—particularly ones presented as truths in image culture at large. We sat down with the artist for a conversation about what inspires her, who are her favorite artists and to learn how the pandemic had impacted her creative process.
What are you currently working on?
Laurie Simmons: During the pandemic I decided to “use up” a lot of my very well organized props and the resulting artworks are part of a series called Deep Photos. They’re literally shadow boxes containing many of the things I used to shoot.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
LS: I find questions like that difficult to answer. I’m of the opinion that the terrain of an artist’s mind is constantly shifting – it has to be... so going to one place for ‘biggest inspiration’ feels limiting. Even the word inspiration seems like it doesn’t mean what it once did with people making ‘inspo’ boards for everything from wedding dresses to room décor to recipes. That said you have to find reasons to keep working wherever you can and the places one goes can be surprising.
On a more personal (non art) level I’d have to say my children Lena and Cyrus Dunham inspire me to grow and think and change in ways that were unimaginable to me before they were born.
Behind Ms. Simmons, portraits of her children, Lena Dunham as Audrey Hepburn, far left, and Cyrus Dunham as Rudolph Valentino. On the floor, preparing an installation of plastic household items titled “The Mess.” Photo Credit: Caroline Tompkins
What is the key theme or idea you'd like your audience to walk away with after seeing your work?
LS: Again, I and most artists I know don’t think in these kinds of absolutes as in ‘one idea.’ A powerful artwork is multi-layered. Art for me needs to have multiple reads and one of my pictures or sculptures or films has to check off a number of boxes before it leaves the studio. I have to communicate something in the realm of the personal, political and psychological to feel satisfied with what I’ve done. My work has to have a read on all those levels.
“Hannah (Aqua),” 2018, a photographic portrait by Laurie Simmons at Salon 94 Bowery. Photo Courtesy of Salon 94
Please name three of your favorite artists, and tell us why they're your favorite.
LS: Again, this is an ever changing terrain based on what I’ve just seen or read and there are a lot of artists I love. I’ll mention a few women artists here who are currently on my mind: Marilyn Minter... total transparency... is a close friend but I just adore her work. It never disappoints. It’s gorgeous and irreverent and smart.
Lisa Yuskavage – also a friend makes paintings that I continue to respond to. We met in the 90’s when I sent her a postcard telling her how much I loved her work and then included her in an exhibition I organized in Soho in 1997. Sometimes I feel like our unconscious minds inhabit the same netherworld.
Xaveria Simmons just made a sculpture for the Brand New Heavies show at Pioneer Works that is so powerful. You have to see it and stand in it to get the full volume of the message.
Collier Schorr was my photo student at SVA many years ago. Collier is now one of the most important fashion and portrait photographers working today. She’s a true empath and I feel like that shows in her gorgeous and spare work.
Speaking of portraits, another one of my former students from SVA Lydia Panas (www.lydiapanas.com) has been shooting portraits of her family for years and has amassed a significant body of work. In her words: “Exploring the roles of power and trust on both sides of the camera, she describes what it feels like to be a woman, a human, and the complex range of emotions we have the capacity to feel.” If you don’t know her work you should!
There are a number of very strong women painters in their 40’s. Too many to name here but the drawings and paintings of Mary Simpson (marysimpson.net) continue to investigate the medium - if not from a female point of view certainly in terms of the language of abstraction which is a refreshing pause during a blizzard of image based works.
Deborah Kass just had a super important show at Kavi Gupta in Chicago. Deb just continues to deliver smart funny bracing works and OY/YO is one of my favorite public sculptures of all time.
Honestly there is so much work out there I respect and appreciate it’s hard to narrow it down to just three people.
What's something you're looking forward to in the next six months?
LS: I’m working on new work so I want to have a period with nothing going on in the so called “professional” realm. I consider that the ultimate gift and a total 100 percent luxury.
How has the pandemic impacted your work / creative process?
LS: I stopped working on new work during the pandemic. I couldn’t go into the studio as though it were business as usual. The world seemed to crack at the seams in painful ways. I felt that listening and reading and supporting and connecting took precedence over making things. I started many things, made many false starts and feel like I’m just getting my art making balance back now.
What has been the most impactful art exhibition / show you have seen recently?
LS: Wow you really like the “best of’ questions. The two Niki De Saint Phalle shows – One at MOMA PS1 and the other gorgeous show at Salon 94 presented an opportunity to get a close look at a super iconoclastic artist. She was one of the first female artists I discovered when I was teenager. She was very complex and though much of her work was personal she made things on a grand scale – her films, Nanas and the Tarot Garden in Italy. She never lost sight of the cultural and political climate of her time – it’s all in her work.
There have been two consecutive shows at Zwirner Gallery that deal with art from the period of the AIDS crisis which feels so relevant right now. The first was the Ray Johnson exhibition curated by Jarrett Earnest and the second is called MORE LIFE and includes the original artwork for the signage SILENCE = DEATH.
One of the many works on view by Niki De Saint-Phalle at MoMa PS1
What is a piece of advice you'd give to an emerging artist?
LS: Find your subject. If it’s honest and real for you you’ll never have to desperately search for ideas. Find an artist friend group. You need each other.
What is a good cause or charity that is close to your heart?
LS: Equality NY, Planned Parenthood and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.
Please finish the sentence: Art is ______.
LS: Stephen Sondheim said “Art is making order out of Chaos” – that’s as good a definition as any.
In Ms. Simmons’s barn, a detail of plastic items, color-coordinated, created for a photograph and a video called “The Mess,” which went on view at Salon 94 Bowery on April 27, 2018. Photo Credit: Caroline Tompkins