The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue

Lorna Simpson: Darkening

Lorna Simpson, Blue Dark, 2018. Ink and screenprint on gessoed fiberglass, 102 x 144 x 1 3/8 inches. © Lorna Simpson. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: James Wang.

The mood is somber and monumental. Blue ink washes over icebergs, enlarged strips of newsprint, and images of Black women. “The unanticipated shock: so much believed to be white is actually—strikingly—blue. Endless blueness. White is blue.” This excerpt from Robin Coste Lewis’s poem “Using Black to Paint Light: Walking Through a Matisse Exhibit Thinking about the Arctic and Matthew Henson” is printed on the wall, furthering the connection to the icy landscapes. To take the trope of the arctic as a way to illuminate what it is to reckon with whiteness is also to refigure the legacy of Matthew Henson, a Black man who was one of the first to reach the North Pole. His presence, often overlooked, gives us a way to see the multiple scales through which Simpson has figured racial and colonial entanglements within the personal, the global, and the conceptual.

On View
Hauser & Wirth
April 26 – July 26, 2019

The combination of icebergs, cloud plumes, and Black women point toward personal confrontations. Violent forces appear to hover beneath the placidity. Through this reading, the arctic stands for what is seen on the surface and what is subconsciously—and perhaps historically—submerged below. Thinking about what is beneath the image Special Character #1 (2019) featuring two gray screen prints superimposed on each other, doubles a woman’s gaze toward the viewer as both aslant and steady. Simpson enlists Warholian aesthetics of screen-printed repetition but uses them to push a psychological dissonance rather than reinforce an objectified glamor. The portraits index the affective labor of becoming a commodity—here, an appealing Black woman; yet they disturb by showing the differences within repetition, and the fissures between the perceptions of self. The top of her head is capped in a pool of yellow ink that could be a hat or cloud. The disparity of the images and the resonance between the hat and cloud plumes with the icebergs further the idea of interior circulations as an opaque (arctic) landscape.

Lorna Simpson, Specific Notation, 2019. Ink and screenprint on gessoed fiberglass, 144 x 102 x 1 3/8 inches. © Lorna Simpson. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: James Wang.

This explicit foregrounding of the interiority of black women in relation to the arctic psychologically connects them to temporality and geography. Icebergs convey a precarity within the current climate state. To position Black women near this slow-moving disaster acknowledges the increased vulnerability of not only the marginal, but also the global, prompting us to ponder the particular temporality occasioned by thinking with blackness. Considering race means envisioning the anthropocene in consequential relation to long histories of racialized capitalism and colonialist conquest, and it is here that Simpson intervenes. In many of Simpson’s arctic landscapes, the viewer finds eyes that stare back. The women’s faces, barely visible through vertical slits, have eyes that speak to the impossibility of contemplating these global histories and shifts without grappling with Black women. Simpson’s sculpture, Timeline (2019) a stack of Ebony magazines further cements this claim to presence within the scale of the geologic.

Their gaze—not straight ahead but more of a side-eye—is both an assertion of presence and critique. This is what Tavia Nyong’o would call critical shade, which he describes as “a vantage point from which to peer into that tradition, reflecting back its gaze and dancing around… It is an indication rather than an embodiment of presence. It holds something back in reserve.”1 Simpson’s figures are speaking from an interiority that contains multitudes, one that cannot be fully known, one that illuminates the problem and offers a rebuke. The capitalized body and its circulations recall Basquiat’s paintings, in which dark heads, flayed yet thickly drawn over, are traversed by blue vein lines. His figures are historically subjected and precariously exposed, and yet, remain insistently unreadable. A skeletal reckoning.

In tandem with the off-kilter portraits of Black women, Simpson shows us an embodiment of Black femininity that is as much about the fissures within the self as the critical knowledge produced from this posture. This is criticism that shakes the ground beneath: It is a side-eye that asks, as an illustration of Lewis’s line, “Was there ever such a thing as whiteness?” Perhaps this shade, born from a history of marginalized living, is at the core of the darkening to which Simpson alludes.

Simpson’s use of stacked newspapers and vertical lines of clippings allows us to find the presence of language within the geologic. Her collage methodology, in turn, harks back to early cut-ups as strategies for freeing language from social conditioning. First utilized by the Dadaists in the 1920s and popularized by William Burroughs in the late 1950s early ’60s, the strategy uses chance (the elimination of “order”) as a way to decode and discover implicit, and perhaps subconscious, meanings within texts. Simpson’s collage/cut-ups point us toward deciphering the concept of “discovery” within its relation to blackness, returning us to Henson. As we learn throughout the show, he was an African American navigator and explorer who accompanied Robert Peary on seven Arctic expeditions spanning 23 years, including the famous 1908–09 expedition in which Peary is credited for discovering the geographic North Pole (on April 6, 1909).

The way the expedition is typically framed is colonial. The Peary narrative suggests that the Arctic didn’t historically exist until it was “discovered” by a white man and planted with an American flag—a story that ignores the fact that the Inuit have long survived within the harsh Arctic landscape, and forgets Henson, who we now know was instrumental in ensuring the team’s survival by maintaining a relationship with the Inuit, learning their language and survival methods.2 Henson, in a way, bridges histories with his relation to the Inuit and whiteness. Simpson’s invocation of a darkening allows us not only to critique colonialist discourses, but also to see how blackness could function as a bridge to untold histories. She offers a way to decolonize Western narratives and make room for a more clarified futurity.

This other layer of darkening comes from Simpson’s extensive use of blue: A blueness beyond whiteness that acknowledges and adapts to the cycles of nature. Beyond a potentially vanishing landscape, Simpson shows us how all histories are deeply embedded and dependent on nature’s cycles despite colonialist endeavors and technological advances. Within darkened layers of compiled history lies the possibility of manifesting a Black becoming, unwashed by whiteness. William Burroughs’s claim about cut-ups is that, “When you cut into the present the future leaks out.”3 Simpson’s psychological incisions enable other histories to seep through while keeping an eye on nature’s blues.

  1. Tavia Nyong’o Afro-fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 34-35.
  2. Diedre E Stam, “introduction to the Explorer’s Club Edition,”Matthew A Henson’s Historic Arctic Journey: The Classic Account of one of the World’s greatest black explorers ( globe Pequot, 2009), 3-6.
  3. William S Burroughs “break through in grey room” album


Maureen Catbagan

Maureen Catbagan is an artist based in New York.

Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues