at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Being scrutinized is never a pleasant experience–not for an applicant during a job interview, not for a rape victim being examined and questioned, not for a young black man walking down the street in an all-white neighborhood. Early in her career conceptual photographer Lorna Simpson practiced documentary photography, a genre that takes for granted one person’s right to scrutinize others, all in the name of revealing truth. But eventually, disaffected with documentary work, Simpson turned to producing highly controlled studio photographs, nearly 30 of which, dating from 1985 to 1992, are included in an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Since 1985 Simpson has paired large-scale color Polaroid or black-and-white photographs, usually of black women, with brief texts, most often in the form of manufactured plastic or metal plaques placed on or near the images. Thanks to carefully considered poses and cropping, these simple, even stark works avoid the intrusiveness bound up in taking pictures–they surrender almost no information about the people photographed. Instead they make us painfully aware of the methods and experiences of scrutiny that permeate our lives and–just as important–of the fact that much information is nevertheless routinely unseen or dismissed.

Consider Three Seated Figures (1989), composed of three Polaroid prints of a black woman seated on a stool or table. The plain white background, the bright, even lighting, and the frontal pose employed in each bring to mind identification photos or mug shots. But, unexpectedly, all three are cropped just above the woman’s chin and below her knees, giving us few clues about her situation. Clad only in a white sleeveless shift, so plain it reveals nothing personal, she holds her arms at her sides, her hands alone betraying a slight tension as they rest on or grasp the edges of the table. Considered by themselves these images ages convey the apprehension and vulnerability many women feel in a doctor’s sterile examination room.

But the engraved metal plaques Simpson places around these photos add another layer of meaning. “Prints,” “Signs of Entry,” and “Marks” read the plaques above the images; “her story” says the one on the left, and “each time they looked for proof” the one on the right. These plaques take us beyond consideration of a woman’s medical treatment into the realms of physical violence and criminal investigation. “Her story” is literally and figuratively a small part of what’s taking place here–the cold, impersonal process of examination by others is what dominates.

In this and other works Simpson demonstrates an uncanny ability to generate multiple interrelated meanings from a few well-chosen elements. You’re Fine (1988) consists of four Polaroid prints hung in a row so that together they form a single image of a reclining woman, seen from behind, who wears the unadorned white shift used in many of Simpson’s pictures. “YOU’RE FINE” read letters affixed to the wall above the photos; “YOU’RE HIRED” read those below. To the left are gold plaques engraved with such words as “physical exam,” “blood test,” “lung capacity,” and “weight”; to the right, two plaques that together read “secretarial position.” The double meaning of this last phrase gives the work a bitter, feminist bite–anyone who’s been secretary will recognize in these words and in the woman’s passive, horizontal pose a wry indictment of a secretary’s low position within a company’s social and wage hierarchy and of the submissive, often servile nature of her work. Equally unsettling is Simpson’s evocation of absolute if unseen authority, which reserves the right to examine and to out blunt pronouncements based on tests over which the woman has little control.

The woman pictured in You’re Fine is something of a mystery. Though her pose recalls the sensual odalisques so popular with Western art’s male painters and viewers, she keeps her back to the viewer, thereby resisting becoming an object of visual delectation and making us aware of the extent to which we act as voyeurs when viewing works of art. Simpson consistently avoids any kind of exploitation when photographing women: her models are always clothed, they frequently turn their backs to the viewer, and their full faces are never shown.

In works such as Screen 4 (1986), a freestanding screen whose three panels bear black-and-white photographs of a standing woman, Simpson calls attention to the emphasis on sexuality so often found in representations of black women by simply omitting it. Standing with arms crossed, or at her sides, or on her hips, and wearing the ubiquitous white shift, here baggy and wrinkled, Simpson’s model chooses neither to please nor attract. The gap between her reality and the desire for pleasure inherent in the male gaze is also alluded to in the words inscribed on one of the panels: “She was no more exotic than the sparse room she posed in.”

The subjection of body and spirit to exploitation and violence is frequently suggested in Simpson’s work. An untitled work from 1989 pairs two circular black-and-white close-ups of a woman’s neck and shoulders with a vertical row of black plastic plaques bearing words corresponding to acts or objects that encircle, among them “lasso,” “noose,” and “collar.” Our interpretation of these words might vacillate uncertainly between the innocuous and the insidious were it not for the red plaque below them: the phrase “feel the ground sliding from under you” swings the pendulum in the direction of lynchings and other terrors. Simpson’s interest in the body as a site of conflict between the individual and larger, controlling forces continues in her most recent color Polaroids, among them Landscape/Body Parts III, Bio, and Self Possession (all from 1992).

A number of Simpson’s pieces utilize two or more figures, as if to emphasize that the experiences she alludes to aren’t singular or unique but shared by many. This point is made explicitly in Same (1991), a poetic juxtaposition of textual fragments and photographs of two women seen from behind who appear to be connected: due to the arrangement of the photos, by a long, thick braid hanging between them like a bridge. The bits of text–“were disliked for the same reasons,” “were not related,” “read the news account and knew it could have easily been them,” “had never met,” among others–don’t really form a narrative; yet, along with the wide spaces between the women (who look as though they’re one and the same person), they somehow poignantly express severed connections and feelings of loss, fear, and isolation.

Similar photographs of two women connected by a single braid are part of the one installation in the exhibit, a re-creation of a room first created by Simpson and composer Alva Rogers as part of a larger installation in the former slave quarters of a plantation in Charleston, North Carolina (a work commissioned by the 1991 Spoleto Festival U.S.A.). A tape playing in turn a haunting song about slavery, the sounds of waves, and a girl haltingly singing “Dry Bones” is the aural backdrop for numerous large corked jugs of water and plaques bearing ship’s names (“Morning Star,” “Dove,” and “Happy Couple”), their places of origin, and numbers of passengers over and under ten years old. It’s a mournful, unbearably sad evocation of countless deaths and broken lives.

A long braid appears in other pieces as well; in fact much of Simpson’s work investigates the cultural significance and manipulation of hair. Stereo Styles (1988) consists of ten black-and-white photos of a young black woman (once again, seen from behind) whose straightened hair is styled differently in each–from a neat bun to a loose arrangement studded with wilting daisies. They present plenty of visual information but ironically don’t reveal much: neither the hairdos nor the accompanying descriptions (“Daring,” “Long & Silky,” “Country Fresh,” “Sweet”) tell us anything of importance about the pictured woman. Flipside (1991), which pairs the back side of an African mask with a back view of a woman whose hair is short and curly, alludes to a kind of intracultural scrutiny: its small accompanying panel reads “the neighbors were suspicious of her hairstyle.”

Simpson’s recent work has been seen here in Chicago twice in the last couple of years, at Randolph Street Gallery and Rhona Hoffman, but this exhibit–her first major show–provides an excellent opportunity to follow her formal and conceptual development. Since both the catalog (with essays by Saidiya V. Hartman and associate curator Beryl J. Wright) and the museum flier explain that Simpson originally took documentary photographs in the United States, Europe, and Africa, it seems odd that none are shown here. While this exhibit is by no means a retrospective (at the age of 32, Simpson’s a bit young for that), the inclusion of a few of her early documentary photographs would have allowed interested viewers to better appreciate her transitions.

Many other conceptual artists–among them Barbara Kruger and Chicagoan Jeanne Dunning–share Simpson’s highly analytical approach to image making, one that assigns great importance to deconstructing conventions of visual and verbal language. In some hands it results in artwork that’s exceptionally aloof and coolly impersonal. Simpson, however, isn’t content to play safe intellectual games. She reminds us that one person’s right to know, one group’s scrutiny of another leads not necessarily to enlightenment but often to surveillance and subjugation. There’s an urgency coursing through this show, an urgency that springs from rigorous, unflinching reflection on deeply felt experience. For a young artist, Lorna Simpson displays a remarkably mature vision.