Laurie Simmons has been building on her sociocritical photographic creations for more than four decades. She stages everyday realities with dolls, dummies, mannequins and sometimes humans with intensely psychological subtexts and forcefully feminist content. These dolls inhabit the worlds and rooms furnished for them. When ventriloquist puppets sing musicals and lifeless items such as cakes, hourglasses and cameras sprout legs, Simmons’ manufactured bodies start breathing.
Born in Long Island, NY, Simmons lives and works in New York City. She began photographing at the age of six when her father had given her a camera. She graduated with a BFA from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and has since been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1984), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1997), and the Roy Lichtenstein Residency in Visual Arts at The American Academy in Rome (2005). Her film The Music of Regret, a mini-musical with Meryl Streep, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in May 2006. Simmons also appeared in her daughter Lena Dunham’s 2009 film Tiny Furniture, playing a fictional version of herself.
From the very beginning of her artistic career, Simmons has grouped her work into series, both black-and-white and colour, in which she explores and transforms a certain repertoire of ideas and materials. Themes of gender and sexuality, domesticity and nostalgia return across her works.
In an early series entitled Interiors and Big Figures, Simmons depicted a post-World War II, 50s suburbia through plastic housewife and cowboy dolls placed in constructed interiors and manipulated exteriors. She explains that she was trying to create a feeling, “a mood from the time I was growing up: a sense of the 50s that I knew was both beautiful and lethal at the same time”.
Staging her puppets among miniature architecture and artificial spaces, they are inspired by human behaviour and in their role-play mirror our own lives in scenic sequences.
In her work Yellow and Green Teen Room, 1983, a room comes to life as the idealised statuettes seemingly converse and mingle with each other. As the 2D interior and the dolls interact and assimilate, the figures are successfully integrated into the room, creating a sense of conformity.
A more recent project was The Love Doll, depicts a customised, high-end sex doll from Japan. In her book from 2012, Simmons documented her photographic relationship with this human scale “girl”, portraying the lifelike, latex doll in a series of actions, from formal and shy poses at first, to ever-increasing familiarity and comfort as time passes. She said: “I realised that I could take this doll and put it into the landscape and suddenly I was on a scale with everything else… it was like the entire rest of the world got unlocked.” A second doll, which Simmons dressed as a geisha, joined the first a year later.
When studied in sequence, Simmons’ photographs often seem like film stills that tell a story. The dolls and statuettes are the actors that breathe life into the rooms or landscapes, while the female figure appears as housewife, lady or as sexualised object. What these protagonists most often have in common is that they are living a cliché and are prisoners of society’s conventions. For Simmons, the medium of photography lends itself perfectly to her socially critical work, referencing the mass-media presentation of women, in particular through her hyper-real but always closely restricted worlds and her portrayal of prototypes.
In her most recent series of works, Simmons focused on women who have painted their eyelids to look like open eyes. Again Japanese-inspired, the How We See series constitutes another critique of femininity and how women are seen: as visual objects without having their own viewpoints. The result staring back at you is devastatingly beautiful, haunting and eerie at the same time.
Making inanimate objects come to life or rather, playing with our tendency to project humanity and an inner life onto everything we see, is Laurie Simmons’ art and her way of questioning the familial constructs of society and mass media.
Her work can be found in museum collections around the world including: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C; The Hara Museum, Tokyo. Earlier this year, a selection of Simmons’ work has been seen in London’s The Art Club, ahead of key museum exhibitions at The Jewish Museum, New York, and at The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) in 2015.