Before Relevancy: Laurie Simmons at MCA

Occupying the top floor of the MCA, Laurie Simmons’ retrospective Big Camera, Little Camera is laid out in the typical, cyclical route which shows in that space follow. And while it may be a standard practice for the MCA, it is perhaps more fitting than it would ordinarily be. When you first approach the galleries, a short video plays of the artist talking about their practice, as way of introduction. This again, is typical for shows in this space, but two things stuck out: one, where Simmons states, ‘my subject has literally been the same from the first day in 1976 that I picked up a camera and shot a little sink in front of a piece of ivy wallpaper. I’m still shooting the same thing somehow.’ This statement points to the cyclical nature of her work–fittingly, as you exit the exhibit, you again approach the entrance, which echoes Simmons’ explanation of how she maintains her practice, and will return to certain methods. The second point that stood out was this: ‘The first pictures I made were about trying to reconstruct a memory and talk about the nature of artifice, talk about both the beauty, the light side and the dark side, of what I understood to be happening around me when I was a child.’

The main wall text viewers encounter as a prelude to the exhibition states, ‘Since the late 1970s,…Simmons has explored archetypal gender roles with her work. Turning a critical eye on tropes that dominated the postwar era of her upbringing, Simmons creates fictional scenes that mirror and unsettle the American dream of prosperity and feminine domesticity.’ While this is certainly an aspect of the work, through these explorations of gender and the American dream and the use of ‘props’ to ‘help define who we are,’ what Simmons is really exploring is the nature of constructed artifice. However, the curation of the wall text–both out front, and dotted throughout the duration of the galleries as anecdotal interjections–lean more towards issues of gender identity and fluidity, and the traditional constructed façades of femininity and masculinity. While it is unclear how much input Simmons had into these texts, it is clear that there is a certain push towards particular aspects of the work that more clearly address pressing, relevant issues of today, despite the fact that, as Simmons says, she has been making the same work since 1976. Museums do, after all, have a bottom line and struggle, as with all cultural institutions, to stay relevant. Gender, and particularly the achievements of women are highlighted: Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman are mentioned as ‘pioneers’ of the Pictures Generation alongside Simmons herself. When the constructed artifice Simmons is exploring is mentioned as such, it is alongside mentions of media, and reality– connections which have only been amplified in the digital age of the internet. In fact, in reading some of the texts, I couldn’t help but think of the MCA’s recent show, I Was Raised On The Internet, which was housed in the same space I was currently occupying.

And as with the I Was Raised…show, the themes and ideas feel less specifically relevant to a particular place, and more to the human population as a whole, although it does feel somewhat targeted towards younger generations, which I imagine the museum is trying to attract. But for Chicago, I think it always feels important to bring in bigger artists that can draw people in. And though Simmons may not conduct the same audience or name recognition of someone like Murakami, the visual draw of her images holds power in their accessibility.

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