BMA show challenges assumptions


The 15 artists in the current Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit "Constructed Images: New Photography by African-American and Latino Artists" have different approaches to expanding the medium and expounding on their heritage.

Lorna Simpson is among those in the exhibit who combine image and text in photographic assemblages that spur viewers to reconsider their assumptions about gender and race.

Simpson's "Good Twin Evil Twin, II" is comprised of two identical, side by side photographic portraits of a woman's head. Rectangular sheets of plastic -- one engraved with "Good Twin," the other with "Evil Twin" -- have been placed over their faces.

Under the picture of the "Good Twin" is printed a list of words: "unencumbered, unexposed, undisturbed, undismayed, uncontradicted." Under the evil twin is printed: "illbred, illegal, illegible, illfavored, illicit."

"A lot of people react to this piece literally in a way that takes the attributes under the good twin to be good and those under the bad twin to be bad," the artist observed during a recent interview at the Baltimore Museum, where she presented a slide lecture. Her own take on the matter is somewhat different. "The bad twin is actually the individual who will survive, make changes or push against the system. The lists underneath show passivity for the good twin and aggressiveness for the bad twin."

In her own soft-spoken manner, Simpson explains how she wants her work to have a bit of an aggressive edge. The direct confrontation with cultural attributes and assumptions comes about in her work through repeated photographic images of women that are cropped in such a way that we cannot see the full face. We can, though, read the accompanying lists that prompt us to think about what these people represent for us.

"I cover the faces so that you cannot recognize the individuals. I try to leave out their faces, but still leave enough information about them. It's my way of diverting attention from specific individuals and to a situation. These figures who don't have faces become icons after a while."

As for the lists, "a lot of my pieces are based on making lists. In that accumulation you get a sense of the individual's personality, and points of view about it. I like to use a common prefix or suffix for the words in my lists, so the root of the word repeats itself. This makes for a uniform group, something cohesive."

Another example of how this functions in her artwork is the piece "ID." Though not part of the exhibit, it was acquired by the BMA last year and is on display in the lobby of the museum's east wing. In this two-panel photographic assemblage, the photo to the left is a dark image in which the hair on the back of a woman's head can be discerned. Printed on this image is the word "identify." As our eyes move over to the photographic image to the right, we see a woman who also has her back turned to us, only we can clearly see the back of her dress, her bare shoulders and the back of her head. Printed on this image is the word "identity." Simpson notes that "ID" is about "how you identify yourself and what your identity is."

Born in 1960, Simpson received her BFA in photography from thSchool of Visual Arts in New York City and MFA in visual arts from the University of California San Diego. Interested in both writing and photography as a student, this New York-based photographer has since been exploring innovative combinations of words and images that present viewpoints on what it means to be an African-American woman.

"Constructed Images: New Photography by African-American and Latino Artists" remains at the Baltimore Museum of Art through March 24. For more information call 396-6310.

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