By Deanna Sirlin
Most artists like to be in control. I know it is beyond satisfaction when it happens in my studio. Their artwork is their own self-created universe where they get to decide all. Laurie Simmons has created a universe in a more literal sense than most artists in that her work for the last three decades has involved the creation of a world of homes and romantic landscapes peopled with dolls, puppets, ventriloquist dummies, and the occasional human being. I visited with her in her studio/office this past September. The day was clear and bright as I made my way to her pristine white office downtown, where her dog and assistant were also present. As Laurie was finishing up some calls, I spent my time looking at her shelves, which were filled with the dolls and doll furniture she has used in many of her photographs. I enjoyed seeing these things, which I knew from Simmons’ work.
When I first encountered the photographs of Laurie Simmons in the early 80’s, I was excited to see someone else tackling the subject matter of women and their relationships to domestic interiors. The images were cool, slick-surfaced, and deeply hued. They were large like paintings and both funny and ironic. They hit a nerve. I l loved her Color Coordinated Interiors series from 1982-83, with women represented by Barbie-like plastic dolls painted the same color as their collaged living rooms or kitchens and then photographed. Laurie places the dolls in overly decorated houses, where they immerse themselves in their domestic and hostess chores to the degree that they take on the color of their surroundings, like chameleons. These photographs were shown with the work of other artists working in similar veins at the time, like David Leventhal, who photographs dolls and toys, often in dramatic scenes, and Cindy Sherman, who created photographs resembling film stills featuring herself as a variety of cinematic heroines.
Laurie did not train as a photographer but as a printmaker and painter. She switched over to the photographic medium because she understood her work needed the coolness and seeming objectivity of the photographic format and medium. She grew up in Great Neck, New York, a quintessentially suburban place for its time with ranch and mock Tudor houses. In interviews, she speaks about her family’s house, a faux castle in the suburbs, and of the colors of the sinks and toilets and the shapes of the rooms from this era. A girl born and raised at this time was trained to care about matching drapes and carpet and decoration. Simmons gives this “house beautiful” idea a feminist twist by simultaneously championing the woman in her domain and critiquing the limitations it imposed on her. These works are simultaneously cool and deeply personal: ironically, Simmons made them with the same intensity of effort and attention to detail a 1950s housewife might bring to decorating her home. However, when such effort is applied to a miniature, dollhouse world, that world becomes an ironic representation of its source.
Like many of the other artists who exhibited at Metro Pictures in New York in the 1980s, Laurie works in series. A very funny, yet poignant, group is her Walking and Lying Objects from 1987 through 1991, resembling of a commercial for Old Gold Cigarettes that appeared on television in the early 1950s, in which an oversized pack of cigarettes with a woman’s legs dressed in cowboy boots danced with a similarly presented pack of matches. Laurie applied this conceit to a range of objects. Her personifications of birthday cakes and other confections, guns, a purse, and most importantly a camera all have women’s legs--either real or doll. The legs animate some objects traditionally associated with women and domesticity, and others that are not, lending both a naughty, come-hither sexuality that evokes both the innocence and the hard sell of the original commercial and its era.
A subsequent and equally compelling series is Laurie’s Clothes Make the Man, 1990-1992, of a group of identical ventriloquist dummies she had constructed dressed in outfits suggestive of what well-dressed men wore in the 1940s and ‘50s. She spent a year photographing at the Vent Haven Ventriloquist Museum in Kentucky. (Living in Atlanta and once having been accidentally locked into the museum at the Center for Puppetry Arts here, I can assure you these are wonderfully scary places where the puppets really do seem to come to life.) Far from seeming like the ominous devil-dolls they are often presented as, these ventriloquist dummies come across as perfect gentlemen and potentially good choices for one of her doll-women who might be seeking a mate.
Laurie’s ongoing interest in using dolls, puppets, and ventriloquist dummies culminates in a truly remarkable short film, The Music of Regret: A Musical in Three Acts, 2006, which recapitulates themes and images drawn from her oeuvre to that point. Laurie directed the film and wrote the lyrics for its songs. In the first act, Childcraft puppets, a line of children’s toys from the late 1960s representing a wide range of social types, enact a tragic tale of boardroom betrayal on puppet stages recalling Laurie’s doll house interiors of the late 1970s. The story, which is both absurd and strangely affecting, is a cautionary tale concerning the dire consequences of making poor social decisions, such as wearing a green tie to a job interview or serving vanilla cake at a children’s party when everyone knows that chocolate is the preferred flavor.
In the second act, a female ventriloquist’s dummy strongly resembling Laurie is surrounded by five facially identical male dummies that are dressed differently. The female dummy is replaced by the actress Meryl Streep, who interacts with four of the male dummies in separate scenes that seem to chart the progress of a romantic relationship from a rapturous moment on a Hawaiian beach in which the Streep and a dummy share a nonsensical duet to scenes evocative of archetypal romantic situations (a fancy dinner, a rainy night, winter in the park) that show the woman becoming disenchanted with her lover. Streep sings to and with the dummies and is actually quite tender with them, especially in the beach scene. Even though she is playing opposite a dummy, Streep succeeds in communicating all the love, joy, anger, pain, and regret entailed in the evolution and dissolution of a relationship, humanizing the dummies in the process and rendering her interactions with them surprisingly emotive.
In the final act, a number of legged objects similar to those that appeared in the Walking & Lying Objectsseries perform choreographed dance routines while auditioning for an unseen female director. Although this parade of images is in one way the most direct transfer of images from Laurie’s photographic works to this film, it is also the most enigmatic. Whereas the puppets in the first act play on a social stage reminiscent of the suburban world of her early work and the dummies of the second act play on the romantic stage implied by their earlier appearances as male archetypes, it is not entirely clear with whom the dancing objects in the third act are currying favor (though the fact that they are dancing aligns them even more explicitly than in the past with the television commercial that inspired them, though the choreography, danced by members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is far more sophisticated). Is Laurie retracing the creative process that led to those works, “auditioning” various objects to be included in the series? The most iconic of these objects, an old camera with legs, appears after the audition is completed, thus implying its centrality to Laurie’s work.
For her most recent work, Laurie bought two Japanese love dolls that she is now photographing. Unlike the dolls and puppets she has worked with before, these are life-size and eerily human seeming. Laurie emphasizes both their poignancy by photographing them, usually alone, in poses and scenes that seem at once comfortable and isolating, scenes made all the more moving by our knowledge of what these dolls were originally made for. Although Laurie’s work can be described in relation to a number of artistic styles and movements, including Pop Art and postmodernism, for me the strongest connection, with Surrealism, is apparent in the dream-like ambience her work has created from the beginning and the uncanniness of treating objects as animate beings with which human beings have relationships that parallel our relationships with each other.
See more at www.lauriesimmons.net
Deanna Sirlin is an artist based in Atlanta. She is writing a series of profiles for TAS of living American woman artists whose work she has been following.
Laurie Simmons, The Instant Decorator (Pink and Green Bedroom/ Slumber Party/ Really Crowded), 2004.
Courtesy of the artist.
Laurie Simmons, Kaleidoscope House #6, 2000. Courtesy of the artist.
Laurie Simmons, Lying Book (Color), 1990. Courtesy of the artist.
Laurie Simmons' collection of Childcraft puppets. Photo: Deanna Sirlin.
Still from Laurie Simmons, The Music of Regret, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.
Laurie Simmons, The Love Doll/Day 11 (Yellow), 2010. Courtesy of the artist.