Setting a stage through creative photography
June 29, 2005
Nineteen-year-old Lena Dunham entered the Baldwin Gallery a few days ago announcing to her mother, photographer Laurie Simmons, that she was taking a “think break.” Dunham had seen a coat, drastically reduced in price, in a shop around the corner and needed some time and distance to reflect on her initial attraction.
Like daughter, like mother.Last fall, Simmons was wandering around the New York Armory on the final day of the Antiques & Design Show when something stopped her cold. “These three light boxes mounted on a wall, empty stage sets, fairly small,” she recalled. “There was this lit world in the box, very theatrical, very crafted. My heart started beating faster before I could even think rationally. My first thought was, I wish I could shoot inside the boxes.”Simmons circled the Armory and returned to the boxes, only to have her first reaction confirmed. “My next thought was, I have to shoot inside the boxes. I have to,” she said.
The light boxes were by a relatively unknown Latvian artist, Ardis Vinklers, who achieved some level of recognition in the 1940s. Still, the boxes were expensive, more than Simmons was ready to spend. So she inquired about renting them. To her delight, within hours the boxes were dropped off at her studio.It was not exactly an impulse rental; small, artificial, dramatic worlds have long had Simmons’ attention. Since around 1978, the Long Island, N.Y., native has created photographs from a universe of ersatz elements: dolls, miniature furniture, tiny tableaux in a box.These boxes were a bit different than the usual, however, in that they were not hers. For one, they were only rented; for another, they represented someone else’s artwork. Initially, Simmons photographed the boxes just as she saw them – a library, a ballroom and a gallery, devoid of people – which left Simmons feeling unsatisfied, like an outsider staring at the surface. “I realized quickly that I needed to penetrate the boxes more,” she said.The first step was buying the pieces, which freed her to lift lids, pry open sides, create her own lighting and eventually populate those worlds with cutouts and dolls. “That’s when the situation changed, and things got very animated and crazy,” she said. “Because before that, I was very conscious that they were made by another artist. Then I had a strong desire to interrupt their tranquility and stage them as sets for my own production.”
Simmons has turned Vinklers’ worlds into her own. The series “The Boxes (Ardis Vinklers),” which opens at the Baldwin Gallery with a reception for the artist on Saturday, July 2, features Simmons’ characteristic pretend worlds. There is a suggestion of sensuality, sophistication and romance, even though the men are uniformly stiff and flat while the women are glamorous and animated (a dynamic Simmons says she hadn’t noticed).Simmons built her early reputation on scenes heavy with artificiality. Not only was she intrigued by the way “the camera tells a lie rather than the truth,” but the content was unreal to the extreme. “My dollhouse interiors from the ’70s were so perfect and plastic, very high-key color, about surface and gloss and perfection,” she said.She has since done an about-face. Her last series, “The Long House,” was shot inside an aged, homemade dollhouse, making it “kind of degraded, dark and gloomy.” “The Boxes” lean closer to “The Long House” than to the earlier work, with an emphasis on theatrical lighting.
Simmons may be in for another change in direction. While crafting theaterlike pieces, she never thinks in terms of narrative. But her current project is a 12-minute film, untitled so far, set to premiere at the Performa Festival in New York in November. The film is a trilogy of pieces in which some aspect of her work comes alive. And that has meant envisioning beginning, middle and end.She is loving the turn. One segment, “The Music of Regret,” involving objects auditioning for a part in a dance production, revolves around a favorite topic, regret.”I’ve been like a dog with a bone on the subject for so many years,” she said.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org