Jacqueline Sischy: The work for Art Basel comes from the body of works in the Darkening exhibition at Hauser & Wirth 22nd Street, which includes new sculptures, collages, and paintings. How do you view these various art forms in your practice? Are they distinct or do you see these various media in conversation with one another?
Lorna Simpson: I think the paintings and the collages and the sculptural elements come into being in conversation with one another: they’re not an execution of ideas in isolation. The works are shaped in terms of process, the collages feed the content of the paintings, then in a surreal way they flip around the relationship between image and context.
JS: Can you tell us a little bit about how you source the material for your paintings?
LS: It began a few years ago after finding some Ebony magazines that belonged to my grandmother in my studio. I was captivated by the imagery from different time periods—as I think the ones that I had were from the 60s—from the editorial content to ads and entertainment. It’s a non-retrospective way of looking back at the contents of the magazine and how specific it was in its lens, in terms of its audience—the African-American population in the United States. And from that moment, it became an exercise in broadening my own artistic practice. So there is always the opportunity for experimentation without expectation.
JS: So you sort of revisit imagery and reappropriate images?
LS: Ebony was one of the first magazines to have a national ad campaign, and to reformulate their ads for a black audience. That too becomes an interesting lens in terms of how ads are composed over several decades—what kinds of ambitions or fears or politics are going on at any particular given point. As an artist gravitating towards advertising and images of women—from very small wig ads or hair product ads, to large-scale national ads—advertisements chronicle periods of time in terms of politics and expressions of self-determination.
JS: You were inspired by the form of stacks Ebony and Jet magazines in your studio as a sort of sculptural element and that took you in the direction to revisit sculpture. In your upcoming show at Hauser & Wirth New York you have a sculpture which will be over 11 feet high of Ebony stacked. So formally speaking, this is an incredibly ambitious stack, but conceptually it also speaks very much to the language of the archive—the archive as a means by which images are used to narrate a cultural history. Do you view this sculpture as a way of conceptually probing notions of the archive?
LS: I would say that as an artist I’m interested in the archive, but playing with archives in the way that their meaning shifts and changes, or their function and importance either becomes more important or shifts, because points of view change and shift over the course of time. I think of it as a sculptural element and of anyone who’s had Ebony magazines or has magazines and periodically threw them away, but this singular stacking way, as a totem, to me seemed appropriate to the subject matter.
‘I have a certain amount of faith, then the process, whatever comes out of that process, is what it is.’
JS: I’m thinking back to your inaugural presentation with Hauser & Wirth at Frieze New York in 2017 where you showed these incredible paintings with the female figures. I see a return here to figuration in this new body of work. What inspired you to revisit female representation in your paintings?
LS: Well, it never really left. I think the way that I work is somewhat cyclical. New things come into the orbit of what I do and become part of the practice. But the female form has always been, over the course of time, part of the work. I think the drawing and the collages have made my relationship with that subject matter more surreal over the course of time.
JS: You first debuted painting at the 2015 Venice Biennale under the artistic direction of Okwui Enwezor. Can you tell us what first inspired your transition into painting and how this dialogue took place with Okwui?
LS: I was making drawings, small drawings, over a course of maybe three or four years, and I was always tempted to scale it up. I wasn’t sure technically how to proceed—how to continue using ink and having this relationship to that medium on a larger scale, while keeping it close to what I had been doing previously. And Pamela Joyner had invited me to go to her place in Sonoma just to take a break. I went and I just needed to start experimenting. And to my surprise, in isolation, and with earthquakes and being out in Sonoma, the work actually started to become very interesting. Okwui and I were very close, like family, but I still had to come up with a proposal. I think I had maybe finished one or two paintings and I proposed five of them. There was, on his part, a bit of faith and insight into being able to see where I was going. I’ve always challenged myself with the circumstance that I create in terms of my work, so experimentation is most often done in public. I think it’s because I have a certain amount of faith, then the process, whatever comes out of that process, is what it is. My ego isn’t so protective of the work in terms of a fear of failure. I just go with my gut—what the process gave me and what its outcome was.
JS: It’s very interesting to hear about the genesis of these works. In many ways, incredibly large-scale, colorful, and expressive paintings are rooted in the language of collage and photography. How do you see your earlier photographic works shaping this new body of work?
LS: I still have an interest and a desire for photography, but that does not necessarily mean making photographs. Understanding how to make them will always be part of my language. My relationship to photography is multi-pronged. My interest lies in the way photographs function within an archive. Photographs in terms of what is being documented as being real or not real. The work that I am doing now, these constructed images, these landscapes, and these faces that are surreal and superimposed upon one another, are not static at all, but surreal portraits. Visually they look different, but conceptually, I definitely see the correlation.
JS: The title of your exhibition is ‘Darkening’. Does that reference anything in particular?
LS: It’s a title of one of the paintings. These landscapes have become more nocturnal than some of the other earlier works in this vein. As I was working on it, they were getting darker and darker and darker, but then I feel also the time we’re living in seems to be getting darker and darker and darker.
Lorna Simpson’s work is part of Hauser & Wirth’s presentation at Art Basel, from 13 – 16 June 2019.