The work that I chose to analyze is Lorna Simpson’s Outline. The piece is a diptych of two black and white large format photographs (gelatin silver prints) with black plaques arranged beneath. Both photos are contained within a simple black picture frame. Both photos are also in very high contrast to their backgrounds, a strong light source brings out the texture and detail of the hairs in the braid, the hairs on the woman’s head, and the texture of her skin.. The photograph making up the left hand portion of the diptych is of a braided ponytail, apparently cut off at the base of the skull.
The braided hair is placed in an ambiguous black background, isolated in lower center portion of the picture plane. Just beneath the image is a black plaque with the singular word “back” engraved on the surface in white. The photograph in the right hand portion of the diptych depicts a young black woman facing away from the viewer. Her hair is short, closely cropped at the nape of her neck. Unlike some of Simpson’s other works, this woman is wearing a black long-sleeved shirt, however her shoulder blades and upper back are just as exposed. Like the accompanying image, an ambiguous black background surrounds the woman. The woman is situated near the left edge of the picture plane, her right shoulder butting against the edge of the frame leaving a sizable chunk of negative space on the other side of the image. The amount of negative space between the slope of the woman’s neck and the far right edge of the image is the approximate width of the negative space between the tips of the braid and the upper edge of its picture plane. Placed on the woman’s left shoulder blade are plaques containing the words, “lash, bone, ground, ache, and pay.” When combined with the word “bone” the combinations of words are “backlash, backbone, background, backache, and back-pay.” The combined words reference the history of oppression blacks face and are facing outside of the humiliation of racist scientific studies. The arrangement of both images, along with the sterile, matter-of-fact words bring to mind racially motivated pseudoscience practices such as phrenology.
This piece also has a “minimalist” feel to it, there are only two colors used, there is “just enough” information in each image to gain a reading. The fact that the woman has no face, coupled with her placement alongside a “hair sample” not only removes her personhood, but her humanity as well. The removal of the face of the woman also suggests violence or control of some kind. The strong lighting on the woman’s back almost washes out her skintone. We can assume that the figure is female from the narrowing of her back and neck; we can assume that the figure is black from the curl pattern in her hair. But both visual cues are simply that, assumptions. Rather than “reclaim” images of Aunt Jemima or “Mammy,” Simpson draws upon the scientific justifications for racism: physical appearance.
Yet, there is a sense of barren ambiguity in both images. Even if the viewer was unable to discern Simpson’s implied meaning to the work, Outline is a very open ended piece; viewers can easily project their own meanings or narratives to the work. The equal portions of negative space in both panels allow the eye to move freely in and out of the both picture planes. However, the placement of both figure and hair suggest that both are somehow trapped within their dark backgrounds.
Outline with Contemporary Value
Simpson’s larger body of work somewhat rises out of the trend of artists working in the later 80s and early 90s who focused either purely upon race or gender. Instead, she combines both topics, as being both black and female is a social double negative. Beyond the fact that Outline’s year of completion, 1990, firmly plants it in the period we are calling Contemporary Art it contains several markers that allow the viewer to place it. The artist is both female and black, which shows an enormous shift in the very definition of “an artist.” The piece is a photograph, and large-scale photograph at that. The figure subject of the photograph may be female, but she is of color. Third, the piece is highly conceptual and cannot be grasped without some in depth knowledge of the history of racial oppression outside of slavery, and the uncanny historical reoccurrence of the body in pieces. Lastly, and possibly most important, there is a great deal of focus on social inequality, identity, race, and gender. Simpson’s work is also firmly entrenched in the second wave of feminism that focused on the body.
One way of understanding the use of body in Outline as contemporary is what Hal Foster refers to as “taming the gaze” in Obscene, Abject, Traumatic:
I want to suggest that much contemporary art refuses this age-old mandate to pacify the gaze, to unite the imaginary and the symbolic against the real. It is as if this art wanted the gaze to shine, the object to stand, the real to exist, in all the glory (or the horror) of its pulsatile desire, or at least to evoke this sublime condition. To this end it moves not only to attack the image but also to tear at the screen, or to suggest that it is already torn.
Foster suggests that painting had originally satisfied the gaze, placated it, but if it is possible for the viewer’s “gaze may trap the subject, the subject may tame the gaze. (Foster, Obscene, Abject, Traumatic, 109)” The viewer is absolutely denied the pleasure of fully gazing at the female figure in Outline, and for that very reason the subject removes the viewer’s power. By having the figure face with her back to the viewer, the viewer is not given the pleasure of immediately discerning the race of the woman, or we can even say, discerning the gender of the figure at all. This ambiguity was an intentional creation by controlling how much power the gaze has was studied well by Simpson during her time in graduate school.
“I made a conscious decision not to show anyone's face, I want viewers to realize that this is one of the mechanisms they use to read a photograph, they are making a cultural reading that has been learned over the years.”--Lorna Simpson (Chicago)
I believe that the text placed along side the images in Outline also removes the power of the gaze because it forces contemplation rather than a means of entertainment for the eyes. Foster goes on to say, “the violated body is often the evidentiary basis of important witnessings to truth, of necessary testimonials against power. (Foster, Obscene, Abject, Traumatic, 123)” This is extremely evident in Simpson’s figurative body of work as a whole.
In The Body In Pieces, Linda Nochlin recognizes the use of the figure in fragments as a, “mark of modern experience—a loss of wholeness, a shattering of connection, a destruction or disintegration of permanent value. (Nochlin, The Body in Pieces, 23-24)” That is, the dismemberment of the body, or at least, the depiction of it as isolated pieces, is a metaphor for the modern human condition. Yet, Nochlin notes that though images can be viewed from a scholarly lens, we must consider the representation of the body either dismembered or in pieces is not simply a metaphor, but a historical reality. (Nochlin, The Body in Pieces, 18) Simpson is most definitely referencing scientific and medical documentation of “human specimens,” and she is hammering in the subject of pain and abjection by breaking up the body.
The embracement of the abject also makes Outline a contemporary artwork. A figure without a face is more disconcerting than a figure that is simply looking down/away, or even with closed eyes because it denies a personal connection to the viewer. From a distance, because of the high contrast between the background and foreground of the right image, it can almost be hard to tell if the figure is indeed facing front. Where a viewer would expect to see a face he is met with tightly curled hair. From a distance the braid in the left portion of the diptych can be read as rope or even feces. In addition to the scientific and social struggles this piece contends with, it also deals with the subject of black hair, specifically black women’s hair. African American hair has been historically regarded with heavy disdain to Eurocentric standards of beauty, and as a result, within black communities too.
According to Julia Kristeva in her essay The Powers of Horror, hair (among other biological evidences of mortality) can be considered abject, “the abject has to do with "what disturbs identity, system, order…what does not respect borders, positions, and rules. (Kristeva)” Because of its tight curl pattern, African hair is often associated with pubic hair even today. African hair is also typically considered unruly, unprofessional, and unclean. Social critic and historian Kobena Mercer recognizes that hair is also an indicator of blackness saying, “within racism's bipolar codification of human values, black people's hair has been historically devalued as the most visible sign of blackness, second only to skin. (Mercer)” Physical appearance also happens to be a gender issue, especially for women of color.
Outline as Contemporary Theory
In Obscene, Abject, Traumatic Foster states, “the breaching of the body, the gaze devouring the subject, the subject becoming the space,” are present in contemporary art because “the real” is now understood as traumatic events: In contemporary art and theory, let alone in contemporary fiction and film, there is a general shift in conceptions of the real: from the real understood as an effect of representation to the real understood as an event of trauma. (Foster, Obscene, Abject, Traumatic, 106)
Foster also suggests that the movement of contemporary art, including film and literature, is toward “trauma discourse. (Foster, Obscene, Abject, Traumatic, 124)” That is, we now understand things to “be real” if they are related to the abject or some kind of traumatic experience. Outline would not be as effective or successful of a piece if its basis was not in both abjection and trauma. However, there is an intrinsic problem with Outline, no one else would be permitted to raise the issue of race, specifically what it means to be black and female, but for an artist who is both. Foster speaks specifically of the problems surrounding artists handling culture and race in his book The Return of the Real. The main problem of artist as ethnographer has to do with the handling of “otherness.” How can one effectively decide the correct distance not only from the colonial power but also from the nativist past? (Foster, The Artist as Ethnographer, 216)
Outline embraces the capturing of the physical appearance of a black person as specimen and uses it as a means to speak of the social “otherness” that black people still face, however, it is still based within the catch-22 of Western perspective. Though she is not using masks, patterns, or cultural language, Simpson is still presenting the black body as an object to be questioned, not fully understood or grasped by White Western culture. Author Huey Copeland in Bye, Bye, Black Girl, raises this fact:
No bones are made about conflating one work with another, and all of them with their maker, whose representative status elicits a well-worn caricaure of the black subject: enraged by her victimization, frustrated by her corporeal and political lack, yet still willing to commodify her people's suffering for the mortified pleasure of white audiences. More insidious, I think, is how such assessments applaud the artist's efforts as successful exercises in self-discipline: the screaming horror of black female being reined in and made palatable by the Minimalist grid, its sublimatory force just enough to make black life over into the stuff of high art. (Copeland, 67)
I am not suggesting that her handling of the subject is wrong, but it is obvious that it could not be dealt with as effectively if Simpson was alternatively a white male. Simple acknowledgement of the racism of primitivism is not enough to fully handle the issue of blackness. Another problem that is raised by Foster is, “the artist standing in the identity of a sited community, he or she may be asked to stand for this community, to represent it institutionally…the artist is primitivized, indeed anthropologized, in turn: here is your community, the institution says in effect, embodied in your artist, now on display. (Foster, The Artist as Ethnographer, 198)” Simpson was not exempt from becoming a poster child of sorts, the mascot for a brand of specious multiculturalism, expected to speak tirelessly of and for her oppressed sisters. (Copeland, 66)
Revisiting Foster’s idea of trauma as a means of understand what is “real,” he notes that there is a general tendency to redefine experience, individual and historical, in terms of trauma. (Foster, Obscene, Abject, Traumatic, 106) There is a need to re-enact scenes of trauma to indeed acknowledge the event even occurred at all. We see this in the explosion of technology and on the Internet, but within the context of Outline Simpson’s use of photography and composition speaks directly of past victimization. If we ascribe to Foster’s theory of “trauma discourse,” the contemporary preoccupation with abjection and trauma is an attempt to come into closer contact with “the real. (Foster, Obscene, Abject, Traumatic, 123)” If the horror of the corpse, bodily fluids, and disease are all evidences of the reality of human mortality, it makes perfect sense that the abject is now an acceptable subject within contemporary art and literature.
Foster’s “trauma discourse” is a furthering of Guy Debord’s notions of “the spectacle” in Society of the Spectacle. Perhaps one of the most compelling quotes from Debord’s text is this, “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image. (Debord) Society of the Spectacle focuses primarily upon the spectacle as something, which is consumed, so the reaction to being completely entranced by the mind numbing aspect of the spectacle is to be shocked, thus allowing to the acceptance of that which is considered abject.
More closely in agreement to Debord’s notion of the “spectacle” is Jean Baudrillard’s The Violence of the Image. Baudrillard states, “Most images and photographs today reflect the misery and the violence of human condition. But all this affects us less and less, just because it is over signified. (Baudrillard) However, he notes that the counter balance to the numbness that is created from the oversaturation of signs is a “counter-transference upon the image,” which is an emotional response mirrored by the image itself. (Baudrillard) The abjection that exists within Outline does not exist for its own purpose, just for the sake of titillating one’s sense of sight; it exists on the deeper level. This deeper level of abjection is the layer that Foster notes that contemporary artists are struggling to tap into, and also the “shock” which Debord and Baudrillard point to as the antidote to visual complacency.
Because Outline employs as little visual information as possible, there is little danger of an overload of signs. “I started to concentrate more upon how the viewer looks at photographic images...[I] abstracted particular qualities, putting them in very stark environments-but leaving the photographic subject blank or not permitting the photographic subject's face to appear. (Chicago, 1)” As mentioned earlier, Simpson desired to remove as many visual cues to the viewer as possible to alter the power of the gaze. In doing so, she not only interrupts the amount of power a viewer holds over an image, but she is interrupting the very way an image can be read.
According to Laurie Rodrigues in her essay Seeing Immanent Difference: Lorna Simpson and the Face's Affect, “the face is an imperial machine, dependent upon precise social formations for its genesis and use. It overcodes the subject, functioning as the "black hole" into which individuality (and imperceptibility) is swallowed. (Rodriguez)” It is also worth noting that perhaps the reason that Outline and other works by Simpson similar to it were so well received was because she produced it using the methods of the white dominated art world. Simpson was criticized for this, one reviewer even going as far to say, “Her methods come straight out of the mainstream, museum-accredited white art world. (Copeland,66)”
Outline as Feminist Artwork
That now leads us to feminist art. Feminist art has since accepted the abject as normal and human simply because the female body has always been considered an “other.” The abjection existing within Outline and Simpson’s other works requires a closer look to digest as it boils just beneath the surface of the image. (Copeland, 66) The reason that Outline is effective at providing “just enough” of the abject is because of its execution. Simpson did not use painting, or performance, or video to state her points, rather, she exercised the creative restraint attributed to male minimalist artists to produce her work. Simpson delving into art, which was already historically a male dominated vocation, but also employing the usage of a male dominated method of making further pushes Outline into the realm of Feminist Art.
“One thing, however, is clear: for a woman to opt for a career at all—much less for a career in art, has required a certain amount of individuality, both in the past and at present; whether or not the woman artist rebels against or finds strength in the attitude of her family, she must in any case have a good strong streak of rebellion in her to make her way in the world of art at all, rather than submitting to the socially approved role of wife and mother, the only role to which every social institution consigns her automatically.” (Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?)
For Simpson, her “streak of rebellion” was speaking against the invisible status of black women, stemming from her own experiences as one. Simpson's faceless, bodiless female, is an impossible figuration of femininity and deterministic, racialized associations. Precisely because she is rendered so minimally, so simplistically, the model goes to the end of everything that one may 'see' (by way of meaning-making) in the figurative, black female. (Rodriguez) The social status of the African American female is one that is often labeled, categorized, marginalized, but rarely (correctly) understood. The exhibition of these works seeks to bring these struggles to a head, not through an expression of the implied pain or rage of the subject, but with the restraint and calm understanding of a woman oppressed.
Outline, Outline, 1990, Gelatin silver prints with applied plastic plaques,
30 x 53 cm (braid); 121 x 101 cm (back), Lorna Simpson
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