I have gotten used to seeing many things running around New York that almost nothing much surprises me. But, from time-to-time there are things and exhibitions that don't get off my mind. In this case, it's a series of six recent, large-scale photographs by artist Laurie Simmons. They were on view last year at The Jewish Museum. Her exhibit How We See draws upon the “Doll Girls” community, people who alter themselves to look like Barbie, baby dolls, and Japanese anime characters through make-up, dress, and even cosmetic surgery. Evoking the tradition of the high-school portrait — when teenagers present their idealized selves to the camera — Simmons photographed fashion models seated in front of a curtain, cropped from the shoulders down. Prismatic lighting and small, surprising details in the models’ clothing give these otherwise banal images a psychedelic effect, which is exaggerated by each girl’s preternaturally large, sparkling eyes. They stare out at the viewer with an uncanny, alien gaze, created by lavishly painting eyes onto the models’ closed eyelids—a technique used by the “Doll Girls” themselves.
How We See draws an arc between portraits traded among classmates and the persona-play that “Doll Girls” rapidly execute on smartphones, where continuous feeds of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter allow alternate versions of the self to appear, morph, and disappear. Simmons has a longstanding interest in masking and disguises, and in these works probes the ever-widening gap between real life and the eerie artificiality enabled by social media. In How We See, Simmons explores contemporary notions of beauty, identity, and persona—investigating how individuality can be assembled through the distorted lens of idealized beauty.
Long before digital technologies were commonplace in daily life, Simmons immersed herself in imaginary, constructed worlds, from dollhouses in Early Color Interiors (1978 – 79), ventriloquist’s dummies in Clothes Make the Man (1990 – 92), and more recently Japanese cosplay in Kigurumi (2014). A constant thread through the artist’s work from 1978 to the present is an examination of self-perception. How we see ourselves, Simmons suggests, is best revealed through approximations, surrogates, and stand-ins.
Laurie Simmons: How We See was organized by Assistant Curator Kelly Taxter. Clothing by Rachel Antonoff and make-up by Landy Dean and James Kaliardos. Images Explore Self-Expression in a Social Media-Driven World Through Online “Doll Girls” Community
Written by Mariana Aguilera