The first question that comes to mind after seeing Laurie Simmons retrospective Big Camera/Little Camera at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is what does it mean to have a major exhibition in 2019 about baby boomer, white feminism?
Big Camera/Little Camera shows the progression of Simmons’s creative career from the 70s up until today. There are thematic threads that are present throughout the whole exhibition –femininity, domesticity, socially imposed gender roles and sexuality; and the exhibition reveals how the way in which Simmons has approached the themes through her art has changed drastically.
In her earlier photographs, such as the Early Black and White, Cowboys and Early Color Interiors, Simmons was critiquing how society imposes roles and gender from an early age through the toys that kids play with. This body of work, photographs of hand-made collaged settings inhabited by dolls, feels very honest. We see an adult playing with the toys of her childhood, rearranging them to create unusual scenes. The aesthetics of these photographs reveal who Simmons was at the time; a playful young American woman, concerned more with creating beautiful images than with making strong demands or critiques. The series Walking and Lying Objects shares similar qualities. Through a combination of Film Noir and surrealist aesthetics, these photographs are iconic and poetic in their own untranslatable nature. Walking and Lying Objects makes obvious comments on gender, roles and identity; however, the strength of the series is not in its politics, but in its visual appeal.
The exhibition shows how Simmons’s work evolved in a more or less predictable way, big dolls replace the little dolls, the settings become more complex and the dollhouses now have original miniature artwork inside them. As the productions’ execution increases and the critiques are more literal, the work looses its initial mystery and enchantment. A series like Two Boys, which shows idiotic, gawking teenagers in front of their laptops, has nothing poetic or mysterious; it’s nothing more but an illustration of a very shallow comment on life in the digital age. The series The Love Doll and Kigurumi, which show a bizarre touristy view on Japanese contemporary doll culture, are equally empty.
Towards the end of the show there’s a room with the portrait series How We See, which is especially interesting to compare the early DIY photographs. The hand-made and material qualities or the early photographs are completely lost in her latest work, replaced now by super produced, crisp digital images. The room is covered with big-scale, Cindy Sherman like, colorful portraits of mainly white women and a couple of women of color. Although the images are technically perfect and visually striking, it’s hard too see Laurie Simmons in these photographs. It’s not clear what’s the intention behind the advertising level production. Is Simmons using her models to state a contemporary critique? Is she trying to dignify them? Or is she hiding behind the faces of contemporary mainstream feminism?
It’s surprising that the How We See series can feel so impersonal even when Simmons used some of her family members as models. Lena and Grace Dunham photographs are in there, stealing the attention from the photographs themselves and reminding us of their own pop culture and social media narratives. Maybe that was Laurie Simmons’s intention with the series, to pass the lead to a new generation? Seeing Simmons’s children large portraits in the room has an imposing, royal-like quality: they now tell the story, they’re in charge. The sad part is that Grace and Lena’s feminism is highly questionable as well; it is also predominantly white, self-oriented and based on privilege. And yet, their pop feminism is indeed more interesting than their mother’s current lack of discourse.
Although Big Camera/Little Camera is an interesting show over all, presenting it as a major retrospective at the MCA is a definitely a big statement from the museum that we have to pay attention to. Having Laurie Simmons’s work in conversation with other female artists’ work would be less grandiose but way richer for a contemporary discussion on feminism. Why do we need more white grandiosity in our time?