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Lorna Simpson: Unanswerable
“Unanswerable (detail)”, 2018© Lorna Simpson. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

How artist Lorna Simpson makes new meaning from old materials

The artist reappropriates old issues of Jet and Ebony to create poignant photo-collages that show African-American women frozen in time

Lorna Simpson has a unique way of creating something new out of another thing entirely. Through bricolage – the medium of creating from what is available and incorporating a range of materials – Simpson brings together found photographs from magazines with newspaper clippings, architectural images, animals, and natural elements such as ice and volcanic smoke. Her use of the medium creates arresting photo-collages that comment loudly on race, identity, representation, and history.

Now, in Unanswerable her inaugural exhibition with gallery giants Hauser & Wirth, running from 1 March to 28 April – Simpson exhibits 40 individual photo collages created from found archive photography and original source material. The exhibition will also feature a medium she has not included in her oeuvre for 20 years: painting. While Simpson gained prominence in the 1980s with her novel approach to conceptual photography, her choice to include painting as a medium in her latest show adds greater depth to her poetic commentary on contemporary culture and American life.

Unanswerable is Simpson’s exploration of history and how it is reflected in contemporary American culture, recontextualising images of black women from her 50s, 60s, and 70s vintage copies of Jet and Ebony – magazines that chronicled the African-American perspective in a time that it was vastly underrepresented in the media – to comment on issues of race and representation that are still relevant today.  

In the show, Simpson splices together staged imagery with images of ice formations – icicles, glaciers, and icebergs –  that creep slowly into the world of her female protagonists. At first, the blocks of ice are hardly noticeable, tolerated and accepted; then overwhelmingly, they encroach on their space, forming prison-like structures that enclose around them.

Simpson moves away from her black and white colour palette in her paintings, bringing in inky blues and purples. An acidy teal overlays a film-strip image of a woman either lying in bed or perching precariously on a window ledge. The fragmented, close-cropped images when covered with the striking tone have a hyperreal and dreamlike feel, reminiscent of a malfunctioning movie reel, flickering out of control and melting away.

Other paintings show huge glacial structures that seem to float – or sink – into deep, dark oceans as thick volcanic smoke plumes above in the background. Barely discernible text clippings juxtapose the powerful, dynamic shapes, and indicate a nod to wider societal issues like climate change.

Sculptures featured in the exhibition continue Simpson’s use of ice as metaphor and the environmental theme throughout the show. Her shiny ice ‘blocks’ made of glass allude to the expression to be ‘on ice’, or in prison – in the press release for the show she acknowledges Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 book Soul On Ice, written while he was incarcerated in Folsom State Prison. Elsewhere an oversized plaster snowball which a woman carefully balances on, evokes the feeling of something snowballing, running away unstoppably without control.

Overall, the use of ice throughout elicits thoughts of Simpson’s figures being frozen in time or enduring struggle – something black Americans face again today. Her combination of the absurd and the ordinary in unexpected settings and new contexts suggest new narratives that challenge history, raising unanswerable questions about fragmentation in society.

Unanswerable runs at Hauser & Wirth in London from 1 March to 28 April, find out more here