The Iconography of Quirk
by Jason Foumberg


Diane Simpson plucked the ceremonial collar from Emperor Qianlong, who sits on a throne of fiery dragons in the eighteenth century. The collar is proud and pointed, framing the emperor’s all-seeing, all-knowing head. There are at least a thousand other details of interest in the old portrait of Qianlong, but the collar spoke to Simpson, reached out to her from across the centuries. She unfurled the collar, disassembled, broke, smoothened, traced and transferred it, folded, recast, colored, reformed and fashioned it into Cape (SL). [See pp. 22 – 23 and 44 – 45 ] Erect on its edges, the convoluted garment echoes the old emperor’s pomp. His ancient body now dust, his culture persists.

It’s a sort of cubism — the unpacking of forgotten wardrobes, the fluffing of timeworn dimensions. Simpson revives iconic dress from yore, and pushes the garb through a prism of geometric abstraction into our ever-present nowadays.

She begins with a source material, usually an odd vestment depicted in folk art or a department store window-display manual, or sometimes the real garment itself if it is accessible, such as a vintage cuff, bib, apron or bonnet. Then, she renders it on graph paper and abstracts it into a fictional flatness using a rigid foreshortened perspective as a blueprint for the sculpture-to-be. The drawings are codified into patterns, as a dressmaker might use, and then formed into a tactile piece of hard outerwear. In this progression Simpson’s objects flip from 2D to 3D to 2D to 3D, from soft to hard, from image to volume, retaining a suggestion of the original flatness from the design and manufacture, as if extruded through time. The play with dimensionality pops these monumental forms into our day. They appear as a sort of functional retro-minimalism, in memoriam to referents that have been sloughed away in the scourge to rid decor from design.

In the current show — Simpson’s nineteenth solo exhibition — all of the garments orient toward the throat, as if they should hang off a neck. No mannequin limbs or bony torsos buttress these clothing-shaped abstractions, yet each begs for a body. These are figurative sculptures, almost statues, like the uninhabited constructivist costumes of Popova. Neither Malevich nor Mondrian rid their pure geometric forms of figuration, inserting footballers and boardwalks among cosmic mathematics. And it’s a persistent joke that Judd’s sculptures are bested by bookshelves. There is no escape from the cage of characterizations. Simpson, too, feels her way through a culture of manners and materials, from rigid metal grating to pilled cotton bibs, in order to forge anthropomorphic formalwear. They are about the body as much as they are about idealized form. It is this duplicity that makes our modernity so interesting, as it is costumed with the fabric of everyday life.

Everything comes full swing. See, for instance, Marc Jacobs’ spring 2013 runway collection for Louis Vuitton that paraded fraternal fashion-twins down four escalators in a Daniel Buren-designed set inside the Louvre. Emperor Qianlong’s power suit, by way of Simpson’s Cape (SL), would be perfectly displayed on the runway, in a department store, in a museum case, a closet, a parade, a stage, in a period painting, or on TV, elevated to an icon of perfect control.

The sources of Simpson’s artworks are alluring because they sit just beneath the surface, and are so curiously familiar. And yet, those invested in contextualizing her artwork may unintentionally estrange her software from her hardware. Why? Because craft and design are modernism’s taboos. Photographs of Art Deco antiques, rural American textiles, wallpaper, embroidery, package design, children’s formalwear in the colonial era, domestic interiors, and folk art are some of the images pinned to the wall in Simpson’s workshop. She hunts for materials at rummage sales, estate sales, and fabric shops. It is as if she picked up where Christina Ramberg left off, or if H.C. Westermann tailored pants for a Karl Wirsum figurine. The power of these objects rests in their ability to make us uncomfortable with our own place and time in the world. We must accept craft-based art forms as a sort of visual art, for these are the things of our civilization. And, aren’t we civilized? Simpson’s work stylizes and formalizes vernacular expressions into a universal, international material culture, in the same way that natural history museums codify cultural relics into the common ancestry of creative life, providing inspiration for future creatives, too.