Exhibition Review: Laurie Simmons’ Clothes Make The Man and The Mess And Some New
By Ilana Jael
The titular series portrayed in Laurie Simmons’ Clothes Make The Man: Works From 1990-1994 consists of 6 nearly identical resin dolls, modeled on wooden ventriloquist dummies. The figures in question will sit side by side on the wall of Chelsea’s Mary Boone Gallery until this July 27, smiling politely at us from their custom-made wooden chairs. They’re dressed to impress in upscale, vintage, 1950’s children’s clothing, and while one looks ready for bed in a robe and pajama pants, the others, in their suits and ties, look ready to do business. They’re not the kind of guys you would expect to have the base desires on display across the way in the 1994 photo series that inspired their construction, Café Of The Mind.
In the first work in its lineup, Untitled (Band), these men’s similarity is emphasized as they pose together like an assembled boy band, representing Simmons’ engagement with the “clownish cultural assumption that individuals are profoundly different based solely on shallow appearances.” The rest of the pictures, which feature actual wooden dummies, use imagistic thought bubbles representing desires to explore “yearning and interior life by staging the secret cravings of men.” Unsurprisingly, many of these cravings are sexual. In the idyllic Caroline’s Field, one man can think only of a ménage a trois, while in a Dark Café, one dummy pictures a an alluring shirtless man as his companion imagines a woman disrobing.
In a nearby Men’s Room, three gentlemen are all thinking of behinds. One imagines a row of demure female derrieres, one conjures up a shapely male behind, and one fantasizes about a gang of kinkier Amazonian types. But not all of the desires represented are perverse ones; one man seems to be thinking about the military, and another fondly remembers his mother’s arms. Another dreamily conjures a Mexican paradise, complete with himself in a sombrero. While a prominent critique of the work when it first appeared questioned its seemingly three-dimensional portrayal of male desires, these more tender images suggest that Simmons is not attacking men so much as trying to understand them, warts and all.
One man in the barroom pictures the wild west while one drinking man’s fantasy of a Chicken Dinner gives us a taste of what’s in store in images from a third series, Walking and Lying Objects. In these photographs, bottom halves of women are topped with items of food, the two forms melding into a sort of appetizing centaur. And while the female body parts and the picture’s backgrounds are rendered in black and white, the luscious red tomatoes, glazed donuts, plates of steaks that appear in lieu of faces are represented living color. This emphasis feels accurate to the nature of desire; when we want something badly enough, it can be the only thing vivid to us. Both series engage with the primal, animal nature of our basic desires, so much the same underneath our civilized clothes.
At first glance, the works featured in a second exhibition of Simmons’, 2017; The Mess And Some New, on view at Salon 94 until this June 2nd, seem more conventional portraits. But a closer look at the reveals a continuation of Simmons’ earlier obsession with clothing and its implications; pieces of the subjects’ outfits are not sewn or knitted but have in fact been painted on. This introduces the element of art into her exploration of identity, as well as continues Simmons’ engagement with the conventions of gender.
Simmons’ daughter Lena Dunham appears against a bright fuschia background dressed as feminine icon Audrey Hepburn, while her transgender sister Grace chooses to emulate masculine silent film icon Rudolph Valentino against a curtain of orange. In another shot, Hannah, a transwoman friend of Grace’s, appears sensual and womanly in a painted-on t-shirt and jeans. While biology and convention may have suggested one identity for these subjects, it is the socially and culturally meaningful symbols they choose to paint themselves with that more accurately reflects who they are.
But the highlight of this exhibition is certainly the unlikely technicolor “mess” of the title, a “twenty-foot rainbow gradient of household objects, tools, foodstuffs, and knick-knacks dumped, rather than artfully arranged, on the studio floor,” including party-banner numbers that make up the date “2017”. Along with reflecting on the plasticine consumerism essential to American culture and her own tumultuous experience of the year, the image also seems to engage with our political circumstances; the mess wrought by Trump’s 2016 election. While the visually stunning, celebratory piece offers few answers to the turmoil that inspired its creation, its expressive destruction is a cathartic release worth experiencing.