HIGHArt is Highsnobiety's ode to all things artistic. From our “museum store” pop up in Miami, a print magazine, and exclusive content and product with collaborators like Chito, Honey Dijon, Parra, Matt McCormick and more, we’re going deep on the art world. Explore HIGHArt here.
When artist Laurie Simmons was first getting her start she said she wanted her pictures to look like the documentary photographs of Gordon Matta-Clark. The dollhouse furniture she was working with was much more minute than Matta-Clark’s multistory buildings, but in their staging you can see a similar precision of odd angles and stark light; both are interventions on traditions of interiors. Since then (that was the seventies), Laurie Simmons’ career looks as decisive and smart as her first public works, shown at Artists Space when she was 29.
Her catalogue has a controlled trajectory, investigating the same subjects, “like a dog with a bone,” she jokes, for coming on five decades. Simmons’ bones include gendered consumer fetishism, white Americana, domesticity, and dolls. She has made use of dolls you can hold in your palm, dolls that sit on your lap, and most recently human-scale dolls and doll masks manufactured for pleasure purposes, always staged and photographed like a scene from a movie, a frame from a moving advertisement, a fashion editorial, or a crime scene.
With still photography as her home base, the artist has also branched out into film, directing the likes of Meryl Streep, Parker Posey, Josh Safdie, and her daughter Lena Dunham in both shorts and a recent feature, My Art (2016). And she has made products, among them dessert plates, wallpaper, high heels, a purse, and a dollhouse.
This month, Simmons is launching a lipstick with luxury makeup monger Edward Bess. It’s her second lipstick collaboration actually and like her first — a highly limited edition made with Poppy King on the occasion of Simmons’ 2018 retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth — this lipstick is red. “When I was younger,” Simmons explains, “I wore red lipstick every day. Now it’s not an everyday affair, but I still love it.”
When Simmons and I meet at her local Manhattan diner, she is wearing a neutral lip, maybe a shade or two darker than her natural I would guess. She starts by asking me a number of questions. “I always interview the interviewer,” she says. The move feels generous, like she is genuinely curious about young people in the arts. (Simmons’ two children, Lena Dunham and Cyrus Simonoff — both brilliant and very different — are around my age.) It also could be a power move, time to read the room and redistribute attention. I’d be disarmed if I had come armed.
When Simmons asks me about good books I've read recently, I think of Paul Preciado’s thesis “Pornotopia,” about how Playboy introduced a new male domestic at the same time as women’s liberation was getting women out of the domestic. It’s actually a perfect accompaniment to Simmons’ 20th century portfolio. And that’s about as heady as I’ll get! Neither of us have done an in-person interview since the pandemic, which has been full of challenges, of course. I’m looking forward to an easy, breezy, beautiful conversation — in which we’ll discuss makeup mostly.
I love the packaging of this new lipstick, with its reproduction of your 1991 photograph “Walking Tomato.”
I thought that the tomato on legs fit for its color and vibrancy. And also way before your time, the word tomato was used to refer to a woman. The only request I made about the design was that they modify the tone of the tomato so that it matched the lipstick. I'm still from a matchy-matchy generation.
I’ve never heard that about “tomato.” What’s the connotation?
“She's some tomato.” Meaning she’s an attractive lady.
Is that like calling someone a peach?
Yeah, but a tomato. “She's quite a tomato!”
Would women say that about each other or would only men say that about women?
You would never say it about another woman. It's in the same line of saying, “She's quite the broad.” A tomato was more definitively about a woman’s looks than a peach. You could say a guy is a peach meaning he's nice, decent and good, but a tomato was like a red, hot woman? It's amazing to me that younger people have never heard of it.
I love forgotten slang.
The first photograph of yours I count with lipstick in it — “Pushing Lipstick (The Approach)” (1979) — stands out in your early body of work because it broke with scale. Previously, it was impossible to tell how big the materials you were photographing were. By placing a standard lipstick next to a doll, it’s a big reveal. Does this new lipstick function in a similar way at all, does it break with tradition or create a new way of seeing your work?
No. I think what I get off on with the lipstick is that it's a product that's being sold that people can wear. I have an enormous amount of interest in makeup, and passion and respect for the history of it, and the potential of it — what it can do. I'm completely unapologetically into makeup. But this doesn't really move the needle in terms of my work in any way. It's just one of these side things I get to do because I'm an artist. It's amazing the things that one gets to do once you call yourself an artist. I've designed a doll house, I've designed shoes, a purse, plates, trophies... I get to make movies.
And you've been doing this for a long time — collaborations with other industries. When you started doing it, did you feel as though you were breaking a boundary that the art world valued? It's so commonplace now for artists to work in film, advertisement, design, and fashion, but there was a time when it wasn’t.
I remember wanting to do it and — again — feeling very unapologetic about my interest in fashion and wanting to collaborate with fashion designers and make products. I just decided that I was going to do it and not be embarrassed about it. I have always believed in the crossover. I know that when I started there probably were people that frowned upon those collaborations.
Do you think it was a masculinist approach — to frown upon such collaborations?
I think it was women too, because the only role for a woman artist to take around the time I came of age in the art world was to imitate the seriousness and the purity of the male role. It still exists today, which is why so many young women still come to me to ask if I think it's okay for them to be artists and also have children. There's something about being an artist, about identifying as such… Maybe in order to validate that life choice, it forces a lot of people to live a kind of ascetic life? To prove over and over your dedication to this particular life choice. It's been tough for women. It still is.
You used the word “embarrassed” earlier. I had actually flagged that word in my research. You’ve previously said that you were initially embarrassed about using dolls and “little girl play” in your work. I was wondering about your relationship to embarrassment. It can be freeing, to do something regardless of that feeling; its own form of transgression.
The embarrassment was about being too female and the “fuck you” was also about being too female. I've come to learn that embarrassment might be a sign of being in a territory that might be really good and valuable. Although you can't go seeking it. Embarrassment can be a signal to really go deeper. And of course, there's the aspect of not becoming bored with yourself. Which I think is the greatest challenge for an artist or a writer or any kind of person making stuff. How do you keep yourself from getting really sick of yourself? You have to spend so much time with yourself and your ideas.
You’ve made use of ventriloquist dolls in your work. I noticed they have very red lips, almost like that Man Ray painting of hot lips in the sky. Did you have a sense of the ventriloquist’s red mouth and otherwise made-up face when you were using them in your work?
The ventriloquist dummies I found at VentHaven, the ventriloquist museum where I went to shoot, all seemed to have red lips. I figured that was left over from some vaudeville ideals of beauty and stage makeup. I photographed the dummies I found there as they were and when I designed my own dummies I gave them red lips to match that tradition. One of the surprising things I found at the museum was how many female ventriloquists and female dummies there actually were who performed in the forties, fifties and sixties. I made an artwork out of all the female press shots on the walls there called “Girl Vent Press Shoots,” a grid of 24 rephotographed press shots. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever made. There are only a handful of ventriloquists that ever become well known so it was great to see how many women exist in this subculture.
Have you done much research into the history of lipstick?
I lived the history of lipstick because of having a mother who never went out of the house without putting on lipstick. I was one of those kids that went through her stuff all the time, so I knew that she had three color lipsticks, as most women did: a true red, a pink, and a coral.
I was trying to figure out when the lipstick tube was invented, because it's funny that we take for granted that the paint we put on our lips comes in a stick in a tube. I found a patent for the design from 1917 and a 1922 Norman Rockwell of a little girl playing with a tube of lipstick.
Of course, in my early photo, besides breaking scale and besides just grabbing a lipstick that I had around, I was really obviously interested in the phallic shape of it, for two hands out holding this thing.
Well that's it! I was going to ask you the obvious question of what the shape reminds you of. The work you made in the 20th century is very much playing with the 20th century’s normative binary construct of gender. What do you make of 21st century gender fluidity?
It’s what I'm focused on right now in my work — that’s it. There's no question that I was focused on the binary because it was drilled so deep and so hard into my life that boys were boys and girls were girls and that was the primary binary in my life. I feel like the 21st century is bringing me everything I need in terms of subject matter. I remember when Lena was born, talking to my husband about what the surprise would be — because every generation surprises the generation before. My parents were so shocked by my anti-American stance, my protesting the war, my boyfriends having long hair, the way I dressed, the Woodstock generation, all of that. This was particularly felt being the child of first-generation Americans. My father felt, as many children of immigrants do, that this country had provided a home for him and his family, so to turn against the United States was painful for him to see me do. Our rebellion is well-chronicled, well-documented. The sexual revolution--whatever, that's all old news. But I didn't know what our children's generation would bring — and now I know what it is. It's a gift having a trans child. It's a gift for me personally and subject matter wise because it takes what was already my subject and allows me to really break it open and drill deep into it.
Have you noticed this trend in mouth and tooth jewelry? In the last year, I’ve been seeing many editorials, advertisements, and kids on the streets with everything from inner lip tattoos and lip rings to rhinestones on their teeth, vampire teeth, metal teeth, diamonds and gold between gaps in teeth, and various riffs on grills. Decorating the mouth feels like a reaction to masks and Covid-19. In a similar vein, there were all these ads coming out that were just people kissing, they weren’t selling anything related to sex or mouthes. How has your relationship with your mouth changed since the pandemic?
I have to say I wear lipstick under my mask which, as I’m sure you know, can make the inside of your mask pretty gross. The mouth jewelry thing is hard for a dentist’s daughter (me) because I’m a real believer in good dental hygiene and maintaining the integrity of the enamel! But I think I can adapt. I love this focus on kissing. We now know kissing causes the brain to release a cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Who doesn’t want that? I’m still confused about lipstick and kissing because lipstick is so alluring but I can’t say that’s true about one’s own smeared lipstick on the person they've just kissed.
Have you ever seen one of these beauty magazine features about, “What the shape your lipstick takes after you use it says about you”?
Oh god. I've read so many like that.
I saw one as a teenager; obviously, it stuck with me. There were illustrations of the different shapes your lipstick could make: rounded on all sides, completely flat at the top, the same shape it came in, or curved like a cat’s claw… I think that meant you were dangerous, a femme fatale.
I remember my mother's shape. It was always flat on the top, because she used to just put it on without looking.
What shape does your lipstick take?
I stick with the original shape of the lipstick.
Could that say something about your character?
I don't know. I'll leave that to the lipstick psychologists.