laurie simmons on her newest living dolls
“Are we all just Barbie girls in a Barbie world?” asks the artist in her first NYC solo show.
"I've always had difficulty shooting with humans, prior to this," says artist Laurie Simmons, who became known for her photographs of doll-house interiors in the late 70s (a process shown intimately in her daughter Lena Dunham's film Tiny Furniture). We're sitting in the middle of "How We See," Simmons' new show at the Jewish Museum in New York, surrounded by six 5"8'-tall photographs which, unusually for Simmons, each feature a woman's face - lit colorfully and uncannily larger than life. "That is, until I put them in masks and doll outfits," she adds.
These new works act as a kind of part two to Simmons' previous series "Kigurumi" (2014), in which she explored anime kigurumi: the sub-sect of Japanese costume culture in which participants transform themselves into human-size cartoon-like dolls. It was the first time Simmons had used living, breathing models in her work, and they looked like 5"5' Sailor Moons. "It all began with a trip to Japan and working on a photo series with a love doll ["Love Doll," 2009-2011]. There's so much in that culture - it could provide me with inspiration for the rest of my life."
For "Kigurumi" Simmons ordered masks - which have the preternaturally large, unseeing eyes of Japanese cartoon characters - from a real kigurumi supplier in Japan and asked friends to model them. The mise-en-scene of the photos evokes the staging of selfies, taken as if at arm's length or by webcam. "I had reached out to some of the real Barbie girls, the girls who had actually completed [doll-like] surgical transformations, but we were never able to connect. That's when I decided to set up my own situation - through dress-up. I'm not working with real cosplayers. It's artificial. I'm imitating what I see."
For "How We See," Simmons continues this exploration of perception and artifice. "The people in the kigurumi masks couldn't see, which forced me to think about vision and sight," she explains. So her new work shows her subjects with their eyes closed, their lids painted with artful trompe l'oeil substitutes. "It felt like this kind of disruption I could make in the portrait that would make me comfortable. I thought, 'How can I bring in enough artifice to make it feel like it comes from me?'"
James Kaliardos and Landy Dean, both established fashion makeup artists, spent hours painting the models' eyelids with lifelike eyes. "They're much better draftsmen than I am," jokes Simmons. And designer Rachel Antonoff supplied clothes for the models, some pieces illustrated by Joana Avillez (Antonoff and Avillez are both friends of Lena). But Simmons was also fascinated by perceptions of beauty outside of fashion - specifically by the way young women present themselves in yearbook photos, selfies, and homemade YouTube makeup tutorials. "There are 20-minute-long videos about a single eyeliner. It's amazing - the number of people who really feel equipped to explain things!"
Funnily enough, Simmons' own next work will be a film - her first narrative piece. "I think that for all the years I've been making my work, I haven't really told a story, but maybe there's been one brewing," she muses. My Art will follow a female artist living in New York City (sound familiar?) and of course there will be a part for Lena. Like everything Simmons does, it sounds like it will be a wonderfully weird and witty walk down the line between fact and fiction. Plus, we hear Natasha Lyonne will make an appearance.
"How We See" runs through August 9 at the Jewish Museum.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography David Heald