Click through to read Linda Yablonsky's essay on the series titled "Better, More Surreal Homes and Collages."
"Better, More Surreal Homes and Collages" by Linda Yablonsky
The New York Times, 15 February 2004, p. 18
What would happen if you gave your home over to a frat party and then invited the cast of a sexy soap opera to join in? What might come of redoing the place with the speed of a supermarket sweep? Imagine carpeting, tiling, flocking, upholstering, painting, wallpapering and generally gussying up every room in, say, 30 minutes. Then imagine being pleased with the results.
This is essentially what transpired in Laurie Simmons's TriBeCa studio when she created her most recent group of 21 photographs, "The Instant Decorator." The complete cycle will go on view next week at the Sperone Westwater Gallery, in Ms. Simmons's first exhibition of new work in New York since 1998.
Each picture features a room that has been given an all-out thematic makeover and that is inhabited by stylish people who are, for the most part, behaving quite badly. There is an all-female slumber party going on in a pink bedroom and a wild bachelor party proceeding to its debauched conclusion in a wood-paneled den. In a coral living room, a half-naked couple are making love before a roaring fire, while three women in a bright yellow kitchen prepare a sumptuous feast of nothing but layer cakes, with lots and lots of icing.
It is easy to mistake these pictures for drawings or digital appropriations of Richard Hamilton's Pop Art collages, particularly his 1956 "Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?" But they are, as Ms. Simmons put it, "antidigital."
In fact, they are photographic enlargements (a few are 48 by 62 inches, the rest 30 by 40 inches) of small collages that Ms. Simmons pieced together by cutting up sex comics, fashion magazines, fabric swatches, rugs, pillows, cartoons, original drawings, men's boxer shorts and her mother-in-law's favorite scarf. Then she pasted and sewed the pieces onto the pages of a home-improvement guide called "The Instant Decorator," published in 1976 by Frances Joslin Gold.
A kind of "This Old House" for armchair design aficionados, the spiral-bound book contains 16 pages of clear acetate overlays each imprinted with a line drawing of a generically furnished room. In 2001 a friend gave Ms. Simmons a vintage copy of the book with the suggestion that she "make art out of it," but she was busy with other things. Her father was dying, for one, and she was making daily visits to Great Neck, the Long Island town where she grew up. She put the book on a shelf.
At the time, Ms. Simmons was living in Brooklyn Heights and commuting to the SoHo loft where she had been working since settling in New York in 1973. It was in that same loft that she and her husband, the painter Carroll Dunham, began to raise their family. (Now married 21 years, they have two daughters, Lena, 17, and Grace, 12, as well as three cats, a dog, a rabbit and two frogs.)
In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, when access to Lower Manhattan was restricted, Ms. Simmons was unable to get to work. "Either you bought a chicken and put it on the stove or you started knitting," she said, inadvertently accounting, perhaps, for the mysterious rise of crocheted artworks in recent New York gallery shows. "Busy hands were happy hands."
"The Instant Decorator" came off the shelf at home and, with her younger daughter, Ms. Simmons mixed and matched fabric swatches and devised color schemes for every page. "I just needed to fill up a room," she explained. "Then I started to get excited about accessorizing the rooms. Then I realized I could also add characters."
Ms. Simmons made the figures by attaching cartoon faces to porn-star or fashion model bodies and drawing on their hairdos or pointy-toed shoes. "The most exciting thing to me is that a comic-book character and a human can exist together in a photograph" Ms. Simmons said. "There's something almost sexually weird between them - people aren't sure what they're looking at."
That ambiguity only adds to her photographs' appeal - as does the current cultural obsession with home-improvement shows, magazines, and books. Indeed, when the first "Instant Decorator" images appeared in galleries In Aspen, Colo., and Los Angeles, in 2001 and 2003, respectively, both shows were immediate sellouts.
“I think I wore myself out with these pictures," she said. "Doing the collages was like decorating a house in a day."
Of course, Ms. Simmons, 54, has been making photographs of domestic interiors since 1976, when she set up the rooms of an old dollhouse and found that through lighting and a play of scale she could make them seem real. (Though Ms. Simmons never exhibited these noirish black-and-white images, she has collected them for a book, "In and Around the House," which Carolina Nitsch Editions will publish next month.) But those tableaus, which paralleled what Cindy Sherman was doing with her own image for her "Untitled Film Stills," embarrassed her. "I always knew I would be an artist," she recalled, "But I did not want to be an artist who took pictures of dolls."
With encouragement from Mr. Dunham and Artists Space, the site of her first exhibition of color work in 1979, Ms. Simmons went on to do several more doll series, as well as portraits of ventriloquists' dummies and a popular group of photographs depicting objects like pocketbooks and petits fours on shapely human legs. With Ms. Sherman, she became known for her fictional setups of real-life situations. That strategy has continued to exert enormous influence on younger artists working today, particularly in photography.
"The odd thing turned out to be that I really could wrench an emotion from a doll," she said. She also developed a grand sense of color. That became especially evident in 2000, when she collaborated with the architect Peter Wheelwright on the Kaleidoscope House, a three-story modernist dollhouse manufactured by Bozart Toys, and available in toy and museum stores, that Ms. Simmons subsequently used to make new photographs and that she has supplied with furniture, miniature artworks and "action" figures of her own family.
A few months ago, as she was preparing the final prints for "The Instant Decorator," Ms. Simmons began another new series that she will introduce with her exhibition next week. Titled "The Long House," after a mansion of a dollhouse she acquired from the artist Charles Long, the glossy photographs measure 48 by 62 inches and place some of the more voluptuous, two-dimensional "Instant Decorator" characters in three-dimensional rooms that strongly suggest a low-rent bordello.
Unlike the prim matrons of her first doll pictures, these women blatantly advertise themselves as the sex objects of classic male fantasies. But to Ms. Simmons, that's just the beginning. "You're talking to someone who didn't put on a pair of stilettos until she was 40," she said. "They're female fantasies, too."