“Laurie Simmons:

The Music of Regret”

At the Baltimore Museum of Art

to August 10

Laurie Simmons’ reputation came of age in the mid-’80s; art as commodity-culture critique was at its peak, and the feminist appropriation of male-dominated art history was running full throttle. But while Simmons drew inspiration from the same crew of late-’60s/early-’70s conceptualists that motivated such peers as Barbara Kruger (“You invest in the divinity of the masterpiece”) and Sherrie Levine (painter of Egon Schieles and shooter of Walker Evanses), and although Simmons could talk a good game of magazine theory, her work was an awkward fit with the word of the day.

Simmons herself insisted on her link to both trends, and her pictures of dolls and doll houses, with their focus on plastic feminine ideals and traditional notions of women’s work, along with her collaboration with the simulationist-aligned Allan McCollum, made the customary readings of her series pretty easy.

And that has often made her work look facile. (A monochromatic doll color-coordinated with a back-projection of a dream kitchen? Petits-fours with girlie legs? I get it. Now can we move on?) But from Simmons’ first museum retrospective a different picture of the artist emerges. To a surprising degree for photography, Simmons’ work needs to be seen together and in the flesh. The simplicity and directness of her tableaux—particularly in her later work—make for a kind of blankness in pieces seen as autonomous entities. But these same qualities establish a poignant solitariness that compounds in the company of like work and becomes recognizable as the defining tenor of Simmons’ work.

The photography of Simmons’ contemporary and Metro Pictures stablemate Cindy Sherman is often used as a touchstone when discussing Simmons’ work. But as curator Jan Howard notes, although Sherman’s work—particularly the career-defining “Untitled Film Stills”—consists of pictures of the artist, it isn’t primarily about her. Simmons’ pictures, however, which only refer to the artist through a ventriloquist’s-dummy surrogate, has her at its center.

Though both photographers are concerned with fantasy representations, their uses of them diverge. Sherman is more interested in the fantasy language of narrative film as a language, as a social construction; it’s possible to examine dozens of the “stills,” glean from them the workings of cinematic and photographic representation of female characters, and not know what the artist looks like.

But look at a photo of Simmons, the person, and Simmons, the artist, has prepared you completely. You know how she feels because her plastic and plaster surrogates have told you. And you know how she looks because in her most recent works she has made her surrogates in her own image—even down to replicating her profile in the face of a dummy.

Crucial to what Simmons calls the “sadness” of her pictures is the creation of disorienting fantastic or idealized environments that can’t properly be inhabited. The color-coordinated dolls get to travel the world in the “Tourism” series, but they still exist in a spatial no-place, with washed-out scenery—the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Parthenon—being merely projected behind them. Her series of spick-and-span doll house interiors includes Woman Reading Newspaper, a title that mocks the fact that the doll can’t pick up the miniature New York Times, much less read it. Having been properly set up, the viewer comes across 1976’s Sink/Connecticut, which though full-size is shot as if it were a doll house fixture, stripped of extraneous detail. Examine the sink carefully, though, and things like the shutoff valve, which would be impossibly tiny in miniature, give the game away; still, the photo’s high-angle view doesn’t allow us to be convinced that we belong there.

The same year’s Untitled/Woman’s Head presents a ’40s/’50s-looking plastic doll in a foggily ambiguous space; although I haven’t seen the movie in years (in fact I have never seen all of it), I get a strong impression of David Lean’s 1945 weepie Brief Encounter. And Simmons’ photos are like that, making obscure links to whatever other sad, sentimental, or comic tales of human aspiration and failing you happen to know. A 1983 untitled work pairs a back-projected ballerina with a fancy dancing porcelain figurine; the “real” dancer looks to the “fake” one with an anxious look, as if requiring both its example and its approbation. (I was reminded of the episode from Hammer of the Gods where John Bonham, in the middle of banging a groupie his tour manager has just finished with, turns to him and asks, “How’m I doing?”)

Simmons’ series with McCollum, “Actual Photos,” involved shooting figures that accompany small-scale model trains under a microscope in a pathology lab. When blown up, the quarter-inch-high figures become a parade of grotesques. Though painted with single-bristle brushes, their twisted features appear to have been applied with rollers. The suggestion is that underneath our social veneer, we bear deformities out of scale with the normality of our surroundings.

The BMA juxtaposes the “Water Ballet” pictures—which uncharacteristically feature human models, who are enacting athletic scenes that retain none of the freshness of an Esther Williams film—with the “Family Collisions” series, which finds a family of dolls scattered underwater, drifting past one another. Both actual and model human legs appear under the “Walking and Lying Objects,” a series that lampoons human purpose by replacing everything above thigh level with objectified representations of common activities—there’s a walking purse for shopping, a standing house for the exercise of domestic duties, a capering hourglass or a sitting pocket watch for merely waiting around or aging.

But the viewer most strongly identifies with the figures in Simmons’ trademark shots of ventriloquists’ dummies. At first, Simmons shot portraits of some of the figures on display at Vent Haven, a homespun museum of ventriloquism in a Cincinnati suburb. There’s the stylish, ruminative Pancho, the prim, curious Jane, the worn though dapper Mickey, the dreamy English Lady. But Simmons’ most moving dummy work involves her own figure reminiscing to The Music of Regret. There’s a tender moment of put-your-head-on-my-shoulder romance in one picture, while another finds “Simmons” encircled by a sextet of dummies distinguishable only by their clothes. They’re either visions of past loves or, given their similarity, fantasy realizations of a romantic ideal.

In recent projects, Simmons has extended her vision beyond still photography. Her recent video, Film Strip, is a half-hour retrospective of her photography, painstakingly synchronized with esoteric vaudeville tunes, cowboy poetry, and weird inspirational vignettes by Paul Winchell (and his dummy) that involve sobering life lessons derived from the wisdom of the blind and maimed. It closes with a sardonic musical cry for the extinction of humanity delivered by Eddie Gray, the dummy of ventriloquist Doug Skinner: “It’s time to give up and die out.” It’s the most affecting motion picture I’ve seen since Crumb.

The BMA show culminates with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a work that encapsulates Simmons’ themes of fantasy and inaccessibility with characteristic pathos. Even before last year’s rerelease of Jacques Demy’s 1964 film, Simmons had begun work on an installation of the same name. In the tradition of Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, the viewer is asked to view the piece through a peephole into an otherwise inaccessible chamber in the museum. The dadaist’s final work drives home its bloodless Lustmord by punctuating the scene with the heedless mechanism of nature in the form of a cheesy fake waterfall of a type familiar to scholars of promotional bar clocks. Not only does Simmons’ scene invert the eeriness of Duchamp’s, it also relishes the magic of the actual while luring the viewer with artifice: Real water drips onto the spiffy black umbrella of a smiling mannequin (Simmons’ image again), who sports a chic matching raincoat and gazes dreamily toward the unseen source of the slowly shifting light that plays across her features. Selections from Michel Legrand’s film score play from speakers inside the walled-off chamber (you’ve already noticed them providing background for The Music of Regret).

Howard claims the piece for women, describing it as the visualization of Simmons’ girlhood fantasy, having fallen in love with the film, of being Catherine Deneuve. The usual hetero male view likely differs: If the romantic cues weren’t stacked high enough already, notice that the navel-high peephole has you down on one knee for the mannequin (no, there’s no ring on her finger). Of course, fantasy needn’t work so cleanly. Having seen Demy’s film last year, I can attest that a suitably romantic hetero guy probably wants both to marry Catherine Deneuve and to be Catherine Deneuve.

In a 1992 interview with photographer Sarah Charlesworth, Simmons spoke of the necessity of making her art appeal to men if she intended not to alienate any of her audience. “The idea of men not being interested in my work makes me uneasy,” she said, seeing the first dummies as entities outside the realm of women, creatures that would speak to men. By positing a connection between looking and romance, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg appeals to men on a fundamental level. But Simmons’ purpose, to which end she draws both men and women into her world, is one not of predation but identification. Ultimately, hers is a seductive rather than polemical feminism, one based on the cultivation of common feeling rather than the acceptance of a political stance. (Analogous techniques have been employed by gay men—Lari Pittman, Stephin Merritt—to impressive effect.) Less timebound and more insinuating than the critiques of her peers, Simmons’ methods may quietly prove more influential. After all, it’s hard to claim not to know something you already are.CP