CORNWALL, Conn. — A housewife perched awkwardly on the edge of a sofa, three tourists transfixed by the Parthenon, a wistful man in evening clothes sitting cross-legged in a folding chair: the dolls that Laurie Simmons has photographed in a four-decade career evoke human emotions, even though they’re not human.
These mute surrogates — most of them female — seem trapped in their prescribed roles. Reaching maturity amid the uproar of second-wave feminism, Ms. Simmons, now 68, captured a mood that was in the air then and feels very timely now.
For Ms. Simmons, there was something reassuring about directing dolls. They follow instructions. They don’t talk back. But it was a desire to exit her comfort zone and explore new territory that motivated her latest work. “I never could have predicted that I would have done something that could be called portraiture,” she said recently, in the house in rural Connecticut that she shares with her husband, the painter Carroll Dunham.
On the wall of Ms. Simmons’s studio in the nearby barn are portraits from her coming show, “2017: The Mess and Some New,” opening April 27 at Salon 94 Bowery in Lower Manhattan. Two photographs depict the trailblazers who led her to this point: her daughters. “I’m way more influenced by my children than I was by my parents,” she said. “At the risk of sounding like a big fat cliché, they’re my teachers now. They’re my conduit to the 21st century.”
Her older daughter, the writer and director Lena Dunham, 31, demonstrated in “Tiny Furniture,” released in 2010, that a movie made on a minuscule budget could illuminate the personal and career struggles of a population that is both envied and derided — the precariously affluent, culturally clued-in denizens of downtown New York. Without that example, Ms. Simmons said, she would never have made her own feature film, “My Art,” which had its premiere in January.
Ms. Simmons invited her daughters to select their personas. Lena found a photograph of Audrey Hepburn that she took as her model. “I think she relates to Audrey Hepburn’s vulnerability,” Ms. Simmons said of Lena, who has written recently about undergoing a hysterectomy to relieve excruciating endometriosis. “Audrey Hepburn had a lot of health issues and maybe sadness inside, but the facade was always perfect.”
Agreeing with that assessment, Lena added, in a phone interview, “A lot of it was taking your own vulnerability — a little pained, a little fragile — and turning it into a strength.”
The portrait of Grace is in the guise of Rudolph Valentino, sideburns persuasively stippled and breasts bound invisibly with gauze cloth. Grace, who typically dreads the alienation provoked by viewing a self-image with feminine traits, said in a phone interview: “I have no idea how I’ll look in my body in two or 10 years, but whatever happens, it will be nice to have this document. I feel it’s very beautiful.”
The portraits of a fragile-looking Lena and a masculine-attired Grace serve as capstones — or milestones — in a year that tested Ms. Simmons’s maternal strength. Lena’s hysterectomy in December culminated a drawn-out medical ordeal attended by both parents. “There were dozens of emergency-room visits in Connecticut, California and New York,” Ms. Simmons said. “It quietly dominated our lives for several years. We prioritized her health. I observed our daughter being in pain in ways I couldn’t imagine.”
Last year, too, was when “we became totally conversant with these ideas of being gender nonconforming and non-binary, and specifically in terms of Grace,” Ms. Simmons said. “For me, it is very much a transition of language. Grace always has been Grace and continues to be Grace. I don’t perceive a different person spiritually or even physically. It was a big change to understand how Grace perceived herself, but it wasn’t the cause of a nervous breakdown or a family crisis.”
The Salon 94 show is one of two from Ms. Simmons opening on the same day. The other, “Clothes Make the Man,” at the Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea, displays work from 1989 into the early ‘90s. Some photographs are of plastic food items (doughnut, steak dinner, hot dog) attached to the feminine white legs of a doll. Others show groupings of male ventriloquist dummies in public settings with thought bubbles revealing what is on their minds: sexual fantasy objects of either gender, tempting food, doting mother.
Back then, Ms. Simmons had identical dummies made to her specifications, their faces registering what can be read as wide-eyed innocence or smugness. She dressed them in vintage children’s clothing, as little men.
“Lena was eight, Grace three or four,” she recalled. “I was probably thinking about the world of men they would have to navigate.” At Mary Boone, six dummies will be displayed in a lineup of chairs mounted to the wall at a spectator’s eye level.
Ms. Simmons was cosseting dolls even before she was mothering children. In the late ‘70s, she began constructing and photographing dollhouse interiors, using miniature figures and furniture that she found in secondhand stores in upstate New York. The scenes resonated with her memories of being raised, the middle of three daughters, by a dentist father and homemaker mother in a Tudor house in Great Neck on Long Island. Especially for her father, who, like her mother, was the child of Jewish immigrants, the house embodied the achieved American dream. Ms. Simmons also perceived that the house — “it had reproduction antiques and reproduction wallpaper” — was stultifying, especially for the woman who was charged with maintaining it.
That awareness was part of a shared culture, and it colored the work of many of Ms. Simmons’s women artist friends. Cindy Sherman met Ms. Simmons in 1978 at the nonprofit alternative gallery Artists Space. At the time, Ms. Sherman was making her “Untitled Film Stills,” depicting herself in archetypal women’s roles.
“I could relate to Laurie’s work from the get-go,” Ms. Sherman recalled in an email. “She was using miniature dolls to set up scenes of domesticity, riffing on role playing and traditional expectations, while I was using myself to riff on similar questions. I had also made some series of photographic paper dolls, so we were both toying with nostalgia and a playfulness in our work. Using dolls and photography was still somewhat uncharted territory, a counterpoint to what our male peers were doing in painting and sculpture, making ‘high art.’”
Ms. Simmons’s black-and-white photography of dolls came with its own tradition, including the Surrealist images of Man Ray and Hans Bellmer, in which the replicas of women are the objects of male erotic desire, and the uncanny child-dolls of outsider artists like Dare Wright and the belatedly discovered Morton Bartlett. But for a woman artist working with dolls, any sociopolitical critique was softened and complicated by the nostalgic recall of girlhood play. “She loves femininity and the trappings of femininity and the performance of femininity,” Grace Dunham said. As children, Grace and Lena would watch with awed fascination whenever their mother dressed up to go to a party.
This ambivalence deepens Ms. Simmons’s art and keeps it from falling into simplistic agitprop. “Laurie’s work doesn’t only look prescient, it looks current,” said Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which will host a Simmons retrospective next year, following its opening at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in October. “The work has a way of touching cross-generationally on the construction of femininity, feminine sexuality and the role of women in today’s world. It walks this very fine line between being playful and searing.”
As she progressed, Ms. Simmons broadened her vocabulary by acquiring new tools and props: color Cibachrome prints, rear-projected backdrops, digital manipulation. A fateful jump came in 2005-6, with the making of a 45-minute musical film, “The Music of Regret,” that gave movement and narrative to the dummies of her photographs. Meryl Streep (part of Ms. Simmons’s wide-reaching network of friends) wore a black wig to portray the artist, and interacted with different avatars of the male ventriloquist dummy.
An off-kilter hybrid, “The Music of Regret” is only partly successful, but it kick-started Ms. Simmons’s dormant cinematic ambitions. After being on her mother’s set, Lena Dunham wanted to make a movie, too: the result was “Tiny Furniture,” produced for $50,000. In it, Ms. Simmons played an artist who photographs miniature dollhouse scenes. The movie tracks with emotional accuracy what was happening in Lena’s life at the time. One place that Ms. Simmons saw room for expansion and improvement was its depiction of her character, a midcareer woman artist.
“My Art,” which was made on a budget of roughly $400,000, aims at a more multifaceted portrayal. Ms. Simmons plays a woman, stalled in her personal life and artistic career, who spends a month in a borrowed country house to regenerate. It is the artist’s passion for her work, not some halfhearted romance, that pulls her through.
“‘My Art’ is the most accurate depiction of an artist’s life I’ve seen,” the painter and writer David Salle said in an email. “Laurie managed to catch the complexity, the loneliness and near-absurdity of it, as well as the tenderness.”
Ms. Simmons shot most of “My Art” at her brick Colonial Revival house in Connecticut. “I always say I’m an artist with the soul of a realtor,” she quipped. She knew she wanted to buy and renovate the dilapidated former school as soon as she saw it in 2005, but it took “two years of nonstop convincing” to win over her husband.
Even more courageous was the move into a new art form. “Once artists get into a specific lane it can be very difficult for them to make the choice to get out of it,” Lena Dunham said. “I was deeply impressed by her motivation and by her passion — and by the final product.”
Making the movie was also a way for Ms. Simmons to deal with a succession of heartbreaking losses that began with the sudden death in June 2013 of her close friend the artist Sarah Charlesworth, and continued, over the span of little more than a year, with the deaths of her nephew, brother-in-law and mother. “When I got the call that Sarah had died, there was complete shock and also the thought, ‘I’m going to make my movie,’” Ms. Simmons said. “The movie supplanted grief.”
She was pivoting away from dolls and dummies to photograph human models, in what has been a gradual, jerky transition. “The whole idea of finding something in someone that is the essence of them, that looking for something, I never understood before,” she said.
Having observed Japanese “dollers,” who as a form of “cosplay” (costume play) paint their closed eyelids to resemble the wide-open eyes of Barbies or anime figures, Ms. Simmons made a sequence of portraits she called “How We See,” in 2015. Her photographs depict young women who appear preternaturally attentive. The simulated eyes are so convincing that on first glance, you recognize only that there is something weirdly soulless about them, as beautifully vacant as Stepford wives.
As a way station between dolls and real women, “How We See” led to the current portraits at Salon 94 of people (and a dog) who are all close to Ms. Simmons, and are seen naked emotionally and, in some instances, physically. Even to her family, the directness of the portraits came as a surprise.
“My mom processes her emotions through her art,” Grace Dunham said. “In some ways, her emotions have been mysterious to me. They have been interior. Her work is potentially the most intimate part of her life.”
The other work in the Salon 94 show, “The Mess,” attests to Ms. Simmons’s longstanding love affair with plastic. In a 20-foot-long photographic print, accompanied by a drone video, she depicts an assemblage of cheap disposable household items arranged by color. “It’s a rainbow gradient mess,” she said.
On a shopping day, she would go with an assistant and buy merchandise in a designated Day-Glo hue, and lay it all out on the floor of the barn. Over it, she displayed the numerals “2017,” a year in which she addressed the health problems of one daughter and the gender transition of another, along with the political fallout of an election that she said horrified everyone she knew.
Yet while “The Mess” is undeniably a mess it is also luridly gorgeous. “Plastic has been such an incredibly key part of what I’ve done,” Ms. Simmons said. “I treat it like marble and light it and make it look beautiful and luxurious. For me, it still has that kind of beauty, which is a surface beauty with a toxicity underneath.”
She might say the same of the trappings of traditional femininity. On that contradiction rests Ms. Simmons’s unsettling art.