Lorna Simpson: Museum of Contemporary Art

Article excerpt

In the conclusion of his catalogue essay for Lorna Simpson's recent survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Okwui Enwezor writes: "A portrait of a black person hanging in a museum is usually disturbing to viewers." A strange claim. It's not just Enwezor's haunted syntax (is it a portrait of a black person, a portrait of a black person hanged, or the conflation of both that disturbs?) that's problematic, it's that--in an era when homage is paid to Jean-Michel Basquiat in the form of a limited-edition Reebok sneaker (the "Reebopper")--his assertion seems a sweeping generalization at best.

Enwezor's claim is built on what he calls Simpson's "iconography of the racial sublime," but in most of her work it is more a racial unconscious and a set of uninterrogated racial fantasies that are performed, in which identity has a straightforward, indexical relation to a body photographed or filmed. Rarely venturing beyond a palette of black and white or grisaille, Simpson literalizes the signifiers of race. The restricted color scheme suggests not the invocation of a sublime but a nostalgia for the look of Conceptualism: her pious grids and photo and text pieces remain proper stylizations, suggesting a paradoxical ahistoricity that finds its apotheosis in the pristine yet "old-timey" look of Wigs, 1994, and Corridor, 2003.

In Corridor, a two-channel video projection, artist Wangechi Mutu plays two roles--wearing antebellum attire in one, soigne '60s dress in the other--and idles in various contemplative poses. Simpson has stated that "Corridor opposes two important historical dates in American history, 1860 and 1960, to reflect upon the state of things at those crucial points and also to foreground what might be the psychological disposition of the characters portrayed because nothing specific happens at the moment they are portrayed." But what is the psychology of nothing happening, and how does it reflect the state of things at those dates? How and why should any of this relate to the here and now? And can depictions of silent waiting really critique the history of passivity that is too snugly aligned with the feminine? …