The Transformational Poetics of Dress: Diane Simpson's Aprons, Deep Pockets and Sleeves
by Susan Snodgrass

A Zenlike purity inhabits the rarefied sculptures of Diane Simpson, who merges Eastern and Western notions of formalism and functionality with a feminist sensibility drawing from the traditions of craft. Inspired by her travels in Japan and by sources as disparate as Shaker furniture, Japanese architecture, antique armor, silos, and historical clothing, Simpson creates minimalistic sculptures of austere, profound beauty that still recall their ancestral prototypes despite exaggerations of scale. These architectonic forms elegantly combine organic and industrial materials, and like their inspirational sources suggest shelters or protective coverings for the body.

Simpson's iconography includes exaggerated corsets, wire underskirts and robes, as well as larger-than-life articles of headgear—Amish bonnets, Magrittean derbies, and Asian rice farmers' hats. Her more recent works are sculptural renditions of various bodice and sleeve designs abstracted from collected prints of courtly Renaissance and Baroque dresses, then transformed into objects d'art via the artist's drawings.

These drawings play an important role in the artist's integrative process, and are usually shown in tandem with the sculptures. Rendered in pencil on vellum graph paper with occasional collage elements depicting the original sources, the drawings function as studies, although they are pleasing in their own right and reflect the same conceptual rigor Simpson brings to her constructed works. Simpson's parallel investigations are rooted in her early training as a painter and printmaker. Her leap to sculpture was initiated by her interest in exploring the illusionistic possibilities of three-dimensional space, and her quest to merge the seemingly antithetical properties of flatness and volume. In fact, the artist refers to her early sculptures as "three-dimensional drawings," and many of her works still retain the skewed perspective of her drawn blueprints.

Several works reference 16th-century costumes, in which the pomp and pageantry of the Elizabethan age is filtered through the artist's spare contemporary esthetic. Muff (1998), although inspired by the ermine sleeves worn by European royalty, seems quintessentially modern. It also bears some semblance to the sleeves of Japanese kimonos, melding, according to the artist, "the formality and elegance of traditional Japan with the influence of Western funkiness." Sewn in black-and-white speckled faux fur and fleece then hung from a smooth mahogany handle attached to the wall, it is constructed to emulate the flattened view presented in its companion drawing. There is a surreal, fetishistic quality to this work, enhanced by the duality between the artist's tactile artificial fabrics and handworked wood, and by the nebulous space it occupies between two- and three-dimensionality.

In three related yet unique works (all 1997), single sleeves are draped over horizontal pine rods suspended from the ceiling. In these pieces, and in all of Simpson's works, the hangers and other supports are both structural and sculptural, their surfaces sanded, stained and sometimes painted by the artist. Simpson hand-fabricates each sleeve differently from such diverse materials as birch plywood, linen, aluminum, wool, and fiberglass screen, creating dichotomies within individual works between soft and hard, natural and artificial, openness and containment. Their subtitles — Cradle, Sling, Pod—offer narratives extending beyond fashion and ornament to notions of carrying, nurturing and healing. Similarly displayed is Formal Wear (1998), distilled from a kimono, in which two large sleeves built from layers of black spunbond polyester hang from a suspended poplar bar. The installation echoes the stark, ordered atmosphere of a Japanese designer-clothing store and, at the same time, evokes a spiritual, even theatrical aura in keeping with the kimono's ceremonial use.

There is a kinship between Vee (1999) and the larger Deep Pockets (1999-2000), most notably in the artist's use of gridlike elements, and both works have the same provenance outside the realm of fashion. One day while visiting the Terra Museum of American Art, Simpson was taken by the painting Girl in a Red Dress by folk artist Ammi Phillips, in particular the puffed sleeves and horizontal neckline of the colorful dress worn by the painting's central figure. The final result is two
works that are uniquely their own. The free-standing, post-and-lintel construction of Deep Pockets is built from mahogany and a thin, flexible lexan, a variant of bullet-proof glass. This semi-transparent material, painted with a crisscross pattern in blue and rust ink, forms the abstract bodice and open pockets mentioned in the work's title. The smaller scale Vee is more precious and objectlike. Here, an armature of latticed painted steel lined with creamy white wool fabric sits quietly upon a birch and pine shelf, its hollow form reminiscent of a vessel or container.

Although Simpson has created monumental works for public sites, an important aspect of her work is its connection to the realm of private life. Drawing from the applied arts and such domestic activities as mending, tying and sewing, she gives legitimacy to traditional experiences of women and to the artistic spaces they have historically occupied. Clothing is also one of the most personal forms of expression, yet it is often dictated by the fickle mandates of fashion, as well as economic and societal codes. Thus the distinctions between style, individuality and uniform(ity) become increasingly blurred.

Many of these issues are humorously explored in Simpson's more recent Apron sculptures (both 2000), which are more quirky and figural than some of the artist's previous works. Constructed of spunbond polyester, synthetic fabrics and black MDF, they take their inspiration from images of aprons found in a vintage pamphlet published in the 1930s on how to sew with bias tape. While they both recall headless classical Greek korai, Apron II, with its plunging, scalloped neckline, curvaceous internal support, and faux leopard fur covering, is ultrafeminine and playfully seductive. Apron, on the other hand, is more restrained. A translucent scrim of lightly patterned, white polyester fabric tautly covers a simple wood frame, evincing the persona of a nurse or nun.

Simpson's meticulously crafted objects share certain affinities with the work of Martin Puryear, whose essentialist sculptures, often suggesting containers or huts, similarly merge reductive formal concerns with those associated with handwork. The feminist content of Post-Minimalism is also evident, the tenets of which address issues related to process and the personal sphere. Simpson's work also connects to that of Judith Shea, Jim Hodges and Beverly Semmes, for example, who either reference or utilize clothing in their sculptures and installations to explore narratives on gender, and individual and collective identity. Moreover, the body is always present in Simpson's reinterpreted fragments of clothing, as they poetically explore the interaction between personal expression and cultural modes of adornment and protection. Through her transformations of the ordinary, Simpson resituates the body within an expanded field of public and private meaning, while opening the conceptual and formal possibilities of her medium.


Susan Snodgrass is a Chicago-based critic, educator and curator, and a Corresponding Editor to Art in America. Portions of this essay were previously published in a review of Diane Simpson's work written by the author in Art in America, May 1999, pp. 164-165.