Lena Dunham’s Artist Mother Laurie Simmons Unveils Armory Week Solo Show

For those of you who don’t know who the artist Laurie Simmons is, here’s some background. Laurie Simmons was born on Long Island in 1949. She received a BFA from the Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia (1971).  Moving back to NY, she found her calling, in 1976 when she purchased a job lot of 1950s dolls-house furniture and began building tiny rooms around them. These were photographed and shown to Helene Winer, director of Artists Space and Winer liked them so much she gave her a show. Simmons work has gone from strength to strength. She has worked with multidisciplinary mediums as diverse as model making, film and puppetry. Her works look playful on the surface, but there is a disturbing often dark side to Simmons’s child-like juxtapositions. Her characters often struggle with their identities placed in a territory which values mass consumption and superficial tasteful(less)ness.

Simmons has been a well known and respected figure in New York’s downtown art scene for over 35 years. Her work recently launched globally when it  played a central role in her daughter, Lena Dunham’s critically acclaimed 2010 film “Tiny Furniture.” In the film Simmons actually played the part of her artist mother; “As Lena sees it, being the daughter of two artists (father the painter Carroll Dunham) was a great piece of luck”. She has since gone on to international stardom herself, with her hit US television series ‘Girls’.

Laurie, who is about to launch a new solo show at Salon 94 gallery in the Bowery, on 7th March says of her new exhibition; “After several years of working with lifelike latex dolls, (The Love Doll Days / Days 1-36) I finally became comfortable working in a human scale environment. As I searched for my next subject I stumbled upon a sub-genre of Japanese cosplay called Kigurumi. Cosplay, short for “costume play,” is a performance art in which participants wear costumes to represent a specific character or idea and often interact in groups to create a subculture based on role-play. This subset includes doll-like characters who dress up in Kigurumi masks and bodysuits. (The bodysuit is known in Japan as a ‘zentai’ or skin suit – a spandex “onesie’ that covers the whole body including the face, hands and feet.) Also known as “Dollers” or “Kiggers,” they go out publicly in their costumes, sometimes as paid entertainers at public events but more often to just “be” in their characters. Dollers frequently flip gender – with men dressed as females though there are girl Dollers and girls dressed as boys, stuffed animals and cartoon characters.

Dollers can become closely bonded with their Kigurumi identities and often feel more at home in their costume personas than their “real” selves. It can be difficult to see out of the masks’ eyeholes so the characters are sometimes led around by the hand making them seem even more fragile and vulnerable.

I searched the web for Kigurumi mask makers and the faces that appealed to me the most come from a cosplayer in Russia. I’ve created a group of characters based on his masks. I’ve dressed them, posed them, dyed their hair and let them develop personalities, gestures and tics based on the models who inhabit them. I perceive them as making an effort to reveal themselves to me and that is what I’ve been trying to record.

Some of my cosplayers are men and some are women but they all portray female characters.  I try to explore the psychological subtexts of beauty, identity and persona surrounding the assembled Dollers. At first I dressed them only in fetish latex, which seemed  both doll-like and right for their identities, but it soon became clear that they needed to expand their repertoire  and play dress up.

While working with my characters I started to think about the implications of using a mask to alter one’s persona as well as my growing affection – even preference – for the masked performer. Might masking be at least part of the appeal of contemporary forms of imaging and presentation of the self via social media? In the last decade the boundaries separating identity and persona have become increasingly blurred — as individuals ‘present’ their BEST selves to their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram followers. One tilt of the iphone can make the difference between a glamorous, funny or obscene selfie. I wonder about the fuzzy space between who “we” are to ourselves and the “we” that is invented, constructed and expressed using the readily available tools of the 21st century? Aren’t we all playing dress-up in some part of our lives?

The first two photos from a new series titled How We See also steal from an anime convention of painting real eyes on closed eyelids. Two fashion models (a blonde and a red head) were made up to resemble “Doll Girls”  – young women who surgically enhance themselves to look like Barbies. Like the Mona Lisa their painted on gaze appears to follow you wherever you move. All of the characters in Kigurumi, Dollers and How We See have been photographed in a tiny abandoned brick house in Connecticut. The family that lived there painted the rooms exotic colors and made little drawings on the wall, creating a space that feels like an overgrown version of the dollhouses I’ve used in the past.

Most importantly the Kigurumi masks allow me to work with human players to explore the blurry place between human and doll, animate and inanimate. I recently read a quote from a Kigger  who said “I like the idea of existing somewhere between the 2-D and 3-D worlds..” I think that has always appealed to me as well.” – Laurie Simmons, February 2014

Simmons work stages photographs and films with paper dolls, finger puppets, ventriloquist dummies, and costumed dancers as “living objects,” animating a dollhouse world suffused with nostalgia and colored by an adult’s memories, longings, and regrets. Her work blends psychological, political, and conceptual approaches to art making—transforming photography’s propensity to objectify people, especially women, into a sustained critique of the medium. Mining childhood memories and media constructions of gender roles, her photographs are charged with an eerie, dreamlike quality. On first glance, her works often appear whimsical, but there is a disquieting aspect to Simmons’s child’s play, as her characters struggle over identity in an environment in which the value placed on consumption, designer objects, and domestic space is inflated to absurd proportions. Simmons’s first film, “The Music of Regret” (2006), extends her photographic practice to performance, incorporating musicians, professional puppeteers, Alvin Ailey dancers, Hollywood cinematographer Ed Lachman, and actress Meryl Streep. She has received many awards, including the Roy Lichtenstein Residency in the Visual Arts at the American Academy in Rome (2005); and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1997) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1984). She has had major exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2006); Baltimore Museum of Art (1997); San Jose Museum of Art, California (1990); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1987); and she has participated in two Whitney Biennial exhibitions (1985, 1991). Simmons lives and works in New York.

LAURIE SIMMONS: Kigurumi, Dollers and How We See March 7 – April 28, 2014 OPENING: FRIDAY MARCH 7, 6–8 PM SALON 94 BOWERY 243 BOWERY, NEW YORK, NY 10002

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