Museum of Contemporary Art to Give Major Survey of Photographer Laurie Simmons' Work

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Acclaimed violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (photo courtesy of Ms. Mutter)

This spring, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera, a major survey of the work of Laurie Simmons. This comprehensive exhibition showcases Simmons’s career-long exploration of how image culture creates and perpetuates the myths of our society, and upends traditional ideas about photography as a medium. More than four decades of work by Simmons are on display, with her iconic photographs, sculptures and films highlighting her importance both historically and as an active contemporary artist. Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera is on view from February 23 to May 5, 2019 and is organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and curated by Senior Curator Andrea Karnes. The Chicago presentation is coordinated by MCA Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith.

Simmons’s exploration of archetypal female gender roles, for example, women in domestic settings, is the primary subject of this exhibition and is a topic as poignant today as it was in the late 1970s, when she began to develop her mature style using props and dolls as stand-ins for people and places.

The namesake work for this exhibition, Big Camera, Little Camera (1976), shows an actual camera juxtaposed with a miniature one, exemplifying Simmons’s technique of manipulating scale. The actual camera in the image was given to Simmons by her father, a dentist who took up photography in his free time. Simmons explains, “I put the two cameras together for scale, and as a metaphor—real life versus fiction. It was also a statement about what I intended to do with the camera.” Far from documenting the world as it is, her photographs represent the effects of fiction on reality.

​Often isolating the dolls and photographing them situated in tiny, austere settings, in series such as Early Black and White (1976-78), Simmons uses fictional scenes that mirror and unsettle the American dream of prosperity and feminine domesticity. The resulting works turn a critical eye on tropes that dominated the era of her upbringing, including the 1950s housewife and the Wild West cowboy.

After graduating from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in 1971, then living in upstate New York and subsequently traveling through Europe while living out of her car, Simmons moved to a loft in the then-low-rent Bowery section of Manhattan. To make a living, she briefly worked as a freelance photographer for a dollhouse miniature company, and in her off hours she pursued her main ambition of becoming an artist. Influenced by her day job, as well as a cache of old toys she discovered at a toy store in the Catskills, Simmons began to photograph dolls and small plastic objects, particularly those from the 1950s, the era of her childhood.

Carefully chosen props, preserved by the artist over the years, are on display, including those used to create the early doll house imagery. This ephemera offers new insight into Simmons’s process, revealing her continuing fascination with models and fleshing out her use of color-coding to organize vignettes into cohesive and precise imagery.

Monumental photographs from the series Walking and Lying Objects (1987-91), are on view in the exhibition. This iconic body of work features a variety of legs—from human scale to tiny metal Japanese fetish models—showing beneath familiar domestic objects. The poses create personified objects and objectified people, demonstrating how our culture defines, fetishizes, and flattens bodies—especially the female body—and material things.

The exhibition also presents Simmons’s more recent series, such as The Love Doll (2009-11), which features high-end, life-size Japanese dolls in day-to-day scenarios. Just as Walking Objects represents a transition to monumental props, The Love Doll moves away from dolls in miniature, but the added element of strangeness is not unlike that evoked by the miniatures. Another recent body of work, How We See (begun in 2014), shows another iteration of the artist’s longstanding interest in gender roles.

​​For more information about the exhibition or for tickets, visit mcachicago.org.

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