- Feeling the Grid:Lorna Simpson’s Concrete Abstraction
LORNA SIMPSON’s The Park (1995) is a photograph of a city park at night, blown up and screen printed onto a large grid of six felt panels (Fig. 1). Approaching the image, our perspective is destabilized, even rendered sublime: we look down through the small forest of trees at a clearing of grass illuminated by scattered spotlights that suggest a walking path. In the distance, rows of buildings and skyscrapers create an expansive grid of windows that echoes the larger gridded structure of the felt canvas.
Two narratives flank the installation of the gridded, felt image. To the left of the image, a felt text panel reads:
Just unpacked a new shiny silver telescope. And we are up high enough for a really good view of all the buildings and the park. The living room window seems to be the best spot for it. On the sidewalk below a man watches figures from across the path.
And to the right:
It is early evening; the lone sociologist walks through the park, to observe private acts in the men’s public bathrooms. These facilities are men’s and women’s rooms back to back. He focuses on the layout of the men’s room—right to left: basin, urinal, urinal, urinal, stall, stall. He decides to adopt the role of voyeur and look [End Page 131] out in order to go unnoticed and noticed at the same time. His research takes several years. He names his subjects A, B, C, X, Y, and O, records their activities for now, and their license plates when applicable for later.
Flanked by the perspective-shifting projection of these texts, the gridded image becomes a scene of observation and seriality. The grid of felt tiles offers an analogue to the sidewalk’s squares of pavement and the side-by-side rectangular
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openings of stall by stall. The shiny new telescope, which both enables voyeuristic habit and beckons toward the years of a sociologist’s research, suggests a sense of duration that corresponds to the boundless intervals of the grid itself. Although no one appears in the images, the scenes offer multiple viewing positions from which to project narratives of private and public acts; such implied acts, like our spectatorship, are at once intimate and impersonal.
An image about the erotics of serial looking, The Park is not only comprised of parts but is also itself part of Simpson’s larger “Public Sex” series. In each of these installations, black and white photographs of public spaces are blown up and screen printed onto separate felt panels arranged in grids. Pictures of uninhabited places become the implied locations of sexual and voyeuristic acts described in narrative text panels: they present a landscape, a city, a staircase, a theatre, a hotel bedroom, but they are devoid of bodies. Rendered abstract and fuzzy in their expansion to felt, the images depict scenes of sexual encounters we never see. The absence of bodies in this series may seem a departure from Simpson’s previous work, which characteristically features black women as central figures. But the texts included with the “Public Sex” pictures also call to mind the absent bodies, as well as the oblique, abstracted body that appears consistently throughout her previous work—a body that is so often framed by different versions of the grid format. The encounter between text and image that populates the scenes and renders them as sites of sexual encounter and sexualized looking is notable, I argue, for its recourse to the grids that mediate the installation. In the context of The Park, the grid enables certain forms of relationality that, I mantain, do queer work. Not only do the narratives reference the gay cruising sites of public parks and men’s restrooms, as well as the voyeur(s) who observe them, but also the gridded image further references the grid’s ambivalent...