Over the past two decades, Brooklyn-born Lorna Simpson has come into her own as a gifted and groundbreaking female photographer. In the past, her photography has penetrated such subjects as sexuality, concepts of the body, the African-American experience and human relationships. Her current exhibition at the University Museum of Art, “Scenarios,” consists of three film-projection works and a number of black-and-white photographs. The exhibit is both artistically alluring and technically ingenious.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Lorna Simpson

Simpson”s work explores both the process by which photography is done and how we view photographs. Her pictures are often accompanied by a single line of text, which reflects Simpson”s interest in how a person “reads” a photograph. Her prints of remarkably normal situations are nevertheless mentally stimulating and visually stunning.

Simpson was originally trained in photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She received her masters degree in fine arts and film from University of California at San Diego. Her earlier work concentrates more on the anonymous figure, but her current exhibit seems to be a more concrete examination of human communication.

Recently, the focus of her work has shifted from strict photography to narrative film. In the exhibit, silver gelatin prints are displayed along with the films they come from. Simpson has both photographed and filmed all of her subjects, and done each with an admirable technical expertise. “I enjoy the process of film so much that it”s a high in terms of collaborative exchange,” Simpson said in an interview with the exhibit curators. “But being able to set up the camera and take photographs is just an added extra.”

The exhibit features three major parts: “Call Waiting,” “Interior/Exterior,” “Full/Empty,” and “Recollection.” Each of these works consist of a series of black and white prints and a short film. The photos ultimately seem to function as almost a storyboard to the films, although each photo is accompanied by a short line of description: A formally-dressed woman sits at a telephone, and the words, “you think you know what you think you know?” are featured under the print. A Dorothy Dandridge-esque female is on a telephone at a bar, a cigarette in her hand, and the words, “listening to a message: 4:40 pm,” are written beneath her. Simpson, who is African-American, has drawn her models from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and her films feature characters speaking in Chinese, Punjabi and Spanish.

“Call Waiting,” which features a number of people communicating to one another by telephone, is somehow both without a beginning, middle and end and also completely enchanting. The viewer attempts to decode the relationships between her cast of characters, often when only one side of the terse conversation is available.

“Recollection,” the most recent of the works showcased, spotlights the methods of thought and the confusion which surround memory. Again, our insights into her characters are limited by the short scenes through which they reveal individual struggles to recollect and event. “Certain characters should continue on in certain guises, but they don”t and certain narratives should maintain their continuity, but they don”t,” Simpson said.

“Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty,” is a multi-projected video installation. Scenes are projected onto the walls from a number of sources, leaving the viewer captivated and turning in the center of the room. We see the rooms both as empty and when occupied. “It”s supposed to leave the audience in a slightly unexpected place,” Simpson said of the untraditional characters in her works. “I want to push the characters further than the normal chatty scenes.”

Simpson”s films and photography remind the viewer to think of film noir and Simpson said that she has been influenced by films of the 1930s, in particular, those of Costa-Gavras, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. As she has done with everything, however, Simpson has captured this genre and discovered it for her own.

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