Laurie Simmons created a black-and-white photograph in 1976 of a real camera her father had given her next to a toy miniature. That deceptively simple, self-referential image, with its exploration of truth and fiction, big and little scale, encapsulated everything she intended to do conceptually with the camera.
‘Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera’ When: Feb. 23-May 5 Where: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Tickets: Free with regular museum admission info: (312) 280-2660; mcachicago.org
“It has a lot of layers,” said the famed 69-year-old artist from her home in Cornwall, Connecticut. “It has the personal, it has the psychological — not as much of the political unless you think of the whole male-female dynamic that I’m always chipping away at in my work. It’s kind of got everything for me.”
“Big Camera/Little Camera,” as the photo was titled, is the namesake image for a new traveling retrospective. Simmons’ first such comprehensive survey since 1997. It will be on view on the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s top-floor gallery from Feb. 23 through May 5.
While the show serves as a summation of everything she has done up to now, it is anything but an epilogue for this artist who remains as active and vital as ever. And, indeed, she is in middle of what she called a “very fertile period.”
“It feels like a great moment to assess the story that I’m telling,” Simmons said. “Oddly, it doesn’t feel the way I expected, like a big end or big beginning. It feels like part of the whole process.”
The exhibition was organized by senior curator Andrea Karnes and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The MCA Chicago eagerly signed on as a second venue in part because of its history of collecting conceptual photography and its emphasis on supporting women artists in recent years.
In addition, Simmons long has been an important artist to MCA senior curator Naomi Beckwith, who oversaw the exhibition’s Chicago installation. “She’s one of the first women artists that you really come across in the contemporary age,” Beckwith said, “and someone’s work who got you thinking a lot about what your relationship is to your environment and gender.”
When Simmons moved to SoHo in 1972, the downtown Manhattan neighborhood was still raw and rugged, though some artists and dancers like Trisha Brown were already ensconced there. “I just felt like a little squirt who was tagging along, and it took me awhile to realize that I was in some sense in the heyday of SoHo,” she said.
Although she had done some photography previously, she didn’t begin to make what she calls her “grown-up work” until 1976, when she set up a small studio in her apartment and assembled her first in a continuing series of imaginary tableaux: a dollhouse sink filled with water in front of ivy-patterned wallpaper. Although it is formally titled “Sink/Ivy Wallpaper” (1976), she calls it “Photo No. 1.”
“Then I got on this train,” Simmons said, “that kept picking up passengers, in a way, and the passengers were informants from the cultural landscape, the political landscape and my own psychological landscape. And the story just continues to write itself in a way visually.”
In 1977, art critic Douglas Crimp included Simmons, along with Tony Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Philip Smith, in “Pictures,” a show at Artists Space in New York. That group, along with other artists like Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, came to be known as the influential Pictures Generation.
Even before the Internet, Beckwith said, these artists understood how society via mass media and consumer culture was coming to “see and perceive the world through images.” Being associated with the Pictures Generation helped promote Simmons’ career, but it has also led to oversimplification and pigeonholing, and she confesses to being annoyed by the tag sometimes.
“I don’t like the name, but the name happened years later,” she said, “and I did feel very connected to my generation and to my fellow artists of that group, though I found that I was often left out of things involving this so-called Pictures Generation.”
The MCA has made some modifications to what was shown in Texas, including the addition of some works that Beckwith thought were more relevant, as well as a never-before-seen piece that Simmons created for this showing. It is an extension of her latest “Some New” series, with people in painted-on clothes.
In all, more than 150 selections will be on view, with examples from all the artist’s major series, including the most famous ones involving dolls and dollhouse furniture as well as those with real people. There are examples from such recent sets of works as “The Love Doll” (2009-11), with life-size Japanese dolls, as well as three of the artist’s films, including “My Art,” which debuted in 2016 at the Venice Film Festival.
Simmons sees the through-story in all her work as women in interior spaces, which can be a dollhouse or the inside of one’s mind. At the same time, as Beckwith points out, the artist explores “gender expression writ large,” subject matter that clearly rubbed off on her famed daughter, Lena Dunham, creator, writer and star of the HBO series “Girls” (2012-17).
But as much as Simmons delves into this subject matter and considers herself a feminist, she shies away from the label “feminist artist,” which she finds too limiting. In addition, she worries that meaning of the word “feminist” has shifted and isn’t as inclusive as it once was.
“There are younger women who are afraid of the word,” she said, “and other kinds of women who feel excluded by the word. So, I’m little squirrelly about the word and the reductive nature of being labeled a feminist photographer. I feel like I cover so many different series and stories, even interactions between men.”