What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

August 8, 2019

Lorna Simpson
The Underground Museum, Los Angeles, California
July 13 - September 8, 2019

Lorna Simpson: Easy to Remember and Corridor

The Underground Museum, a space for exhibitions and events, is housed in a small inviting and unimposing space on Washington Boulevard. The museum has a bookstore in front and a huge garden space in the back, and was conceived of as a place for culture and conversation for all. It was founded by the late painter Noah Davis and now operates in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art. Some of the exhibitions have borrowed from MOCA's collections and were organized before Noah's passing. The Underground Museum aims to promote cutting-edge African-American art, but inclusiveness is also part of its mission. Recent exhibitions have featured the photography of Deana Lawson (October 13, 2018 - February 17, 2019) and Roy DeCarava (March 30 - June 30, 2019).

The current exhibition, Summertime is comprised of two seminal video works by the photographer / painter / filmmaker Lorna Simpson. Simpson is best known for her inspiring work from the 1980s that juxtaposed images and text to explore issues of race and identity and culture. As a point of departure, she is currently exhibiting a new series of paintings, entitled Darkening at Hauser & Wirth in New York City (April 25 - July 26, 2019).

In Summertime, Simpson presents two early video works, Easy to Remember (2:56, 2001) and Corridor (13:15, 2003). For those expecting a curated selection of photographic works, the exhibition may be a disappointment, especially because it comes on the heals of two more comprehensive presentations of photographs. That aside, it is a welcome relief from the summer heat to sit within the darkened space and immerse oneself in these films. What links these two pieces is that there are no speaking parts, but rather each contains a soulful jazz soundtrack.

Easy to Remember is a short looping projection (a 16 mm black and white film transferred to DVD) comprised of a three by five grid of mouths, each humming in unison a John Coltrane version of a Rodgers and Hart song. The disembodied figures, both men and women, are shot in close up, their mouths filling the rectangular frames. The rectangles have beveled edges so each mouth appears to be in a separate box. These boxes are composited together to create the final grid. As the individuals hum, their faces move, swaying to the rhythm of the music despite confining of frames. The composited work explores ideas related to difference— specifically the way individuals interpret and represent identical source material.

Corridor is a longer and in many ways more complex work. It is a double channel projection depicting the lives of two women. Set in different timeframes— the Civil War and the Civil Rights eras— Simpson imagines them going about their daily routines, silent and lost in thought. Though each screen is meant to represent a different time period, they are connected by the jazz soundtrack and by the fact that the same person, the artist Wangechi Mutu plays both women. The women dress, wash, eat, and reflect in isolation, and in vastly different settings. As they move through the corridors of these homes, Simpson's camera follows them up stairs, and into the kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms. The modern woman enjoys her leisure time, sitting on a couch or speaking on the phone, whereas the woman from the 1800s carries a lantern as night falls and uses it as illumination while she writes a letter. Simpson shoots the exteriors of the houses as well, allowing viewers to imagine the landscape and climate of these different time periods. As the classical and jazz soundtrack composed by John Davis ebbs and flows, the trappings of each woman's space becomes more evident. While the images do not connect, the action in one seems to direct what happens in the other as each woman traverses the corridors of the life she was born into.

A visit to the garden is a welcome reprieve after the viewing of these works. It serves as a peaceful place to contemplate Simpson's videos and think about issues of race and class in contemporary times. How much has changed?