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Much to learn from Lorna Simpson's lips


Take close-ups of several pairs of brown lips humming a sweet, sad song, arrange them in a rectangular grid, five down and three across -- some of the lips are duplicated -- and add sound. That's the recipe photographer Lorna Simpson followed to make Easy to Remember, her new installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the first major video work ever to enter the BMA's permanent collection.

Easy to Remember, which made its debut at the Whitney Biennial in 2002, takes its title from a 1930s Rodgers and Hart song of the same name. (The BMA version is an artist proof, or reference copy made for the artist.) The song is a bittersweet ditty about lost love and remembrance. In the 1960s, it was recorded again by the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, whose rendition of it provided the basis for Simpson's work.

The artist invited a group of professional singers into a recording studio to hum along with Coltrane's version of the tune as they listened to it through headphones. She photographed the singers' faces with a 16 mm movie camera, then transferred the images to video and digitally edited them to create a grid consisting of 15 uniform rectangles enclosing just the singers' lips.

Because the singers were recorded on different occasions, and because each singer took the opportunity to interpret the song personally, their renderings are in synch, yet individually varied. The result is a gentle, flowing meditation on the theme of unity within diversity that has a distinctly elegiac character.

Simpson began her career as a photographer in the late 1970s. Her early pictures often isolated a particular fragment of her mostly female subjects -- hair, skin, eyes -- as a metaphor for the rich psychological complexity of African-American experience. In Easy to Remember, the fragment again stands in for the whole; the mouth and lips, recast on a monumental scale, evoke a wide range of associations, from organs of expression, intimacy and love to food, eating and bodily functions.

The artist's more recent experiments with film and video implicitly invite viewers to compare her take on African-American experience with the ubiquitous imagery of contemporary pop culture, especially movies, television and rap music videos, most of which assume a stereotypical sameness in the depiction of black life. Simpson's lyrical pieces can be read as therapeutic psychic antidotes to an invidious tradition of dehumanizing representations of blacks that began during the era of slavery and which continues in slightly updated form to the present day.

The forms Simpson adopts, however, are not those of strident protest or pointed political commentary, but rather of gentle persuasion, enchantment (Easy to Remember is literally a "sung" piece, which viewers hear well before they enter the gallery where it is installed) and, on the deepest level, an appeal for recognition of the common humanity that unites all of us. Ultimately it is these qualities, not the sophisticated technical ingenuity of Simpson's method, that account for the rare power of this poignant yet deceptively simple work.

Object Lesson, which will feature essays, observations or tales focusing on individual objects, will appear occasionally in the Arts & Society section.

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