Big Camera/Little Camera: Laurie Simmons at the MCA

Laurie Simmons’ retrospective, Big Camera/Little Camera, presents the artist’s work dealing with topics of consumerism, gender and gender roles, sexuality, and identity, from 1973 to the present. The exhibition moves from intimate silver gelatin photographs to large format saturated color prints, also exhibiting some of the props used to create the photographs. The organization of the exhibition is fairly straight forward and guides the uncertain viewer on. As you approach the exhibition there is a video with Simmons speaking about her work, wall text, and a clearly marked entrance and exit. As you enter the galleries, you move through Simmons series in chronological order, rather than thematically, giving the viewer a clear narrative of the progression of the artist, her interests, and the work. Accompanying the wall labels that have succinct descriptions of the series and individual works, there is larger wall text identifying each series.  The different series are clustered in groups on the wall and each series is visually cohesive leaving me wondering if the large wall text designating each group of works is necessary or if the curator should give the public more credit. Simmons also seems to grapple with the how much to tell the viewer, creating obvious one liners that are far from nuanced mixed in with deeper and more complex works. 

Closing the show, the last image next to the doorway is a large portrait of a dog, Penny (Harlequin), from the series Some New. While I am a fan of furry friends, the photograph seems disjunctive from the rest of the work in the show. The final room with works from Some New are made up of images of portraits where clothing or jewelry have been realistically painted on the bodies of different individuals and How We See, uncanny images of eyes painted onto closed eyelids. Some of the subjects include immediate family members and it is easy to assume that the dog is the artist’s, but I still find its presence perplexing and out of place with the rest of the series and exhibition.

While there are problematic moments in the show, such as works in the Kigurumi series, the exhibition is a successful representation of Simmons’ work and leaves a lasting impression. The different series contain humor, horror, and wonder, each complimenting the next. Including some of the miniature furniture props from the photographs and the model used for The Boxes (Ardis Vinklers), gives the viewer a sense of awe and a greater appreciation for the incredible transformation of spaces and objects in Simmons’ work. While each series uses different subjects, they are all tied together by a sense of the uncanny. Each photograph in the exhibition is slightly jarring, asking the viewer to look deeper at the work and contemplate the image. Having a retrospective of a female artist with feminist works is important and exciting, but also feels timely. Perhaps the celebrity of Laurie Simmons for a large exhibition is important to the city, and perhaps her daughter’s fame will help draw a younger crowd that the museum continues to struggle to engage, but it is possible that the curation of the show lets Chicago down by not giving the audience enough credit and having faith in the viewer.

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