Diane Simpson
Diane Simpson

In her beautifully elegant, won-drously crafted, and totally absorbing sculptures, Diane Simpson refashions fashion, and cunningly explores the range of glories to be discovered within the accoutrements of human existence. After all, everything we design, particularly the clothes that adorn our bodies, is somehow wrought in our endlessly shifting physical and psychological image. Our hats, dresses, uniforms, capes, ceremonial garb and musical instruments always attempt to respond to ideas and desires we have about our bodies, about how we want to present ourselves, about how we wish to see and be seen. Simpson begins with these core materials — the design of a bonnet, the shape of a Japanese lute, the swirl of a cape, the rhythm of a sombrero's brim, the pleats of a skirt, the armor of a Samurai warrior, and more — and starts her mellifluous sequences of emendation and extrapolation, of augmenting aspects within her source materials, and then extending their possibilities through her sensitive system of investigation and discovery.

Simpson weaves quite a web — her art in many ways is
an inquiry into the architecture and architectonics of
fashion design. She deconstructs and then
reconstructs, she reduces and then expands, and she reaches simultaneously for the core and for the embellishment. If Simpson begins, say, with a piece of head garb, as she does in Shaker Bonnet (1990), her subsequent alterations of it take it on a journey that sometimes seems quite afield from where she began. She stretches angles, refocuses rhythms, changes scale, rethinks materials, and eschews functionality, while all along maintaining — even enhancing — poetic connections with her starting motif. Simpson doesn't abstract her source material as much as enhancingly permute it, taking it toward new design possibilities, ever extrapolating while ever sensitive to its fundamental essence. She ends up with a bonnet that can never be worn, but that functions as an incredible visual immersion into bonnethood, into thinking about the rhythms and textures and possibilities residing in an article once worn around a woman's head.

Drawings play a crucial role in this journey, and in this exhibition we witness the manner in which Simpson makes her shift from thing to essence of thing. Largely self-taught in the strategies of isometric drawing, Simpson starts to see her subject — a 19th-century underskirt, for example, in Box Pleats (1988) —as shape, as geometrical and volumetrical design with organizational tendencies that can be worked into another program. Sometimes she will accentuate a particular curve, or lengthen a line, or envision what her source would look like if some parts of it were seen at a 45-degree angle. These drawings become her working plans, mechanical and construction designs, with mathematical calculations sketched out to prepare them for their transfer into three-dimensions.

And then comes the crafting into sculpture, Simpson's superb and crucial assemblage of just the proper materials wrought just the proper way. Here her instincts are truly extraordinary, and the collection of wood, paint, stain, pencil marks, wool, corrugated board, fiberglass screen, aluminum, brass, waxed linen, silk cord, steel tacks, cotton, polyester spun-bound fabric, and more that are on display here represents no random assemblage of a variety of stuff, but the judicious application of the needed material at its required juncture. Simpson is a builder with great respect for her craft, and her patient and thoughtful selection of material — and these are materials not traditionally utilized in sculpture — and the scrupulous skill in its employ is fascinating to observe. Perhaps reflecting the source in fiber arts of much of her inspiration, Simpson is often a stitching sculptor who employs devices of sewing and tying as a means of assembling her work. She does not weld, choosing instead to annex and attach, and brings her sculptures together in a manner that gives them a lightness of silhouette and a sense of potential for movement. Sometimes, as in Cape (1990), they appear almost as stunningly attractive armatures, a bit like superbly wrought parts of a mannequin, teasingly abstract while also fully imbued with intimations of a torso and a personality. Simpson gives character, true senses of personhood, to these meditations on sleeves and hats and the rest, and we are perpetually encountering moments of clever insouciance, such as in the Dutch flip of the brim in Bowler (1994-95), the finest treatment of a bowler hat in art since Magritte's, or the sinister stem-ness set into Hood (1991), where a 16th-century ceremonial Japanese helmet gets evolved into a brooding specter of war and aggression.

Diane Simpson sees these possibilities, and many, many more, embedded into the articles we employ to surround our physical being. Her sensitive immersions into and extensions of the aesthetics of apparel design do more than hint at the wondrous alternatives she has discovered resting there, they also bespeak a human presence, a human mind inexorably imbued into the stuff of life. In doing so, Diane Simpson regularly gleans art from artifacts, and fashions art out of the art of fashion.

James Yood is an art historian on the faculty of Northwestern University and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the regional correspondent for ARTFORM magazine and a contributing editor for New Art Examiner magazine.