Hanging on the white walls of the former Warburg dining room, the six massive portraits of the new photography series, “Laurie Simmons: How We See” juxtapose against the traditional style of the room. Upon closer look, the subjects of the exhibit evoke a feeling of palpable unease. The women of “How We See” are not what they seem.
The effects of Simmons’ work are complex but the concept is simple: the cleanly styled models pose with their eyes closed and new eyes are painted over their lids in front of bold curtains. The painting and positioning are so masterfully executed that the bizarre use of the eyes may go unnoticed at first.
Born in 1949 to first generation American Jews, Simmons grew up in Great Neck Long Island, and spent her days gazing at Life magazines in her father’s dental office. She arrived on the scene as a voice of the “Pictures Generation” in the mid 1970’s, and has experimented with miniatures and dolls ever since.
“Women alter themselves with make up, dress, and even cosmetic surgery to look like Barbie, baby dolls and anime characters” said assistant curator Kelly Taxter, citing “Doll Girl” culture. The models of “How We See” veer from the cliché of extreme, magnified physical attributes with their natural relaxed hair, airy clothes, and ostensibly unobtrusive makeup.
But looking into those surreal painted eyes, one begins to question what is so carefree and normal about the painted visage of each woman, and how much of her appearance and exposed personae are flimsy constructions – artifice in front of a curtain.
Simmons and her team could have done the models up in high glamour but by making them appear to be everyday, albeit stunning, individuals she puts her audience to task for our assumptions about the standards of beauty.
This body of photography feels tonally separated from the museum’s other exhibitions, offering an enjoyable curveball for its regular patrons. What’s more, the Jewish Museum can now benefit from Simmons’ new armada of young fans, who have followed her on Instagram and twitter since she appeared in her daughter Lena Dunham’s breakout HBO series, “Girls” as well as her film “Tiny Furniture.”
Though Simmons has pieces all over the world, including photographs in the MOMA and the Met, “How We See” is her first solo exhibition in New York City. The show, which runs through August, came together through an ongoing friendship between Simmons and the Jewish Museum’s Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director, Claudia Gould.
“How We See” is a hidden firework. The stealth spectacle of the portraits call for several cycles around the Warburg dining room. Simmons' quiet subversion of conventional beauty elicits dialogue on appearance, identity, perception and power, proving that provocative artistry runs in the genes.