This artist's camera does lie
The photographer Laurie Simmons grew up in a Tudor
castle, or at least the closest thing to a Tudor castle one can find in Great
Neck. She recalls the house with the pulsating vividness of a dream. The master
bathroom, she has written, "was a perfectly round room that fit neatly into
the single stone turret. It had classic four-by-four matte black tiles and an
exquisite maroon sink." The basement was a party room fitted out as a soda
shop, with plaster models of banana splits.
The combination of precision and romance with which Simmons cultivates the
memory of her childhood home infuses the work she makes today, though the
57-year-old artist now lives with her husband and one of her two daughters in a
compact apartment in TriBeCa. She specializes in photographing inanimate
figures in ersatz settings: dolls and dollhouses, ventriloquists' dummies,
dancing pistols, all rendered in wistful shadows and expressive light. Real
life, her photos suggest, is just an imperfect copy of illusion.
"My dream is to have a house so big that every room becomes a set - to live
in an oversized dollhouse," she says. "At a time of life when other people
think about simplifying and downsizing, I fantasize about this enormous house.
I dream about it constantly."
A few fragments of Simmons' elaborate fantasy life have drifted into the
Nassau County Museum of Art in the form of a mini-show called "The Music of
Regret," which is also the title of her 45-minute musical film. Meryl Streep is
the only fleshly presence in a cast of dummies with reptilian stares and
enigmatic smiles. (The film is shown continuously on Saturdays through the run
of the exhibit.)
"They are creepy," Simmons acknowledges. "I don't like them all that much.
But it gives me a great sense of power to animate an inanimate object. There's
something more real to me about the pathos of these characters, as they try to
duplicate the situations of real people. Every time I take a picture with a
human in it I feel it is some kind of failure."
She is, accordingly, best known for her images of objects on legs, played
in the film by dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. A purse, a
cheesecake and a handgun each take solos atop female legs, suggesting the
extent to which cliches about femininity have overtaken women themselves. A
house where a torso should be implies that a home can go rather suddenly from
cozy to confining.
Simmons' artistic world reproduces the fascination with living toys and
expressive automatons that runs through the Pinocchio story, the tales of
E.T.A. Hoffmann and the "Child's Play" movies, with the bloodthirsty doll
Chucky. Simmons herself, though, displays not a trace of morbid eccentricity.
Her humor is wry, her laugh frank, her manner down-to-earth.
Yet somewhere in the layers of her psyche she does not show except in art
must be a powerful urge to manipulate others, a need she has mostly sublimated
by constructing intricate tableaux with unprotesting dolls. In 1980, however,
she ordered her father to dress up in a sailor suit and dance with her mother,
who was wearing a girly, satiny gown.
The result was "Sam and Dottie Dance," which was both intimate enough to
make the artist feel some discomfort and stagy enough to make her feel giddily
in command. "I felt like a voyeuristic child witnessing something I wasn't
supposed to be seeing. It was an interesting feeling of power." Simmons has
even made a puppet version of herself, giving fresh meaning to the phrase
Happy suburban memories
For an artist with such a darkly funny sensibility, Simmons has
suspiciously positive feelings about her childhood. Her mother tended to their
suburban castle with the earnestness of a Life magazine housewife and an opera
director's flair. Her father, a dentist, saw patients in the house, and his
gizmo-rich office exerted a magnetic influence on little Laurie.
"Everything magical and mystical went on there," Simmons says, enraptured
still. "He was like an artist in his studio. He had a darkroom where he would
develop X-rays. I was always welcome in his waiting room. I would read
magazines, play with charms, stare at the fish tank where he had tropical fish.
All those things seemed exotic to me."
Even in the less expansive real estate of lower Manhattan, Simmons has
managed to re-create her own version of a cabinet-in-the-home. She lives on one
floor and works on the one below; an internal staircase allows her wire-haired
terrier Dean to scamper back and forth between living room and workshop.
"My studio has been a place where my children want to be. They always come
to see me when they come home."
Early artistic consciousness
Sam Simmons kept his daughter supplied with cameras, and Dottie gave her a
steadfast ambition. "When I was 5 I already knew that I wanted to be an artist.
I think my mother told me that's what I would be. All I know is the first day
of kindergarten I introduced myself by saying, 'My name is Laurie Simmons and
I'm an artist.'"
She spent much of the 1970s reimagining this domestic cocoon in miniature,
building tiny household sets, populating them with plastic women and
photographing them up close in refulgent afternoon light. In 1986, aware that
she had hardly ever photographed a male, living or manufactured, she made a
pilgrimage to Vent Haven, a museum of ventriloquism occupying a retired
businessman's suburban home in Fort Mitchell, Ky. She returned many times to
photograph the museum's collection, fascinated by the way she would find a
roomful of her subjects waiting for her at school desks, as if expecting her to
bring them to life.
Her dummy period has continued, on and off, for more than 20 years, in part
because the puppets serve her the way they do ventriloquists, as willing
channels for anything she wants to have them say. "The specialit� de la maison
is turning them in the light to evoke the greatest amount of expression in
these inanimate faces." She treasures the trickery involved in the process,
which makes her the exact opposite of a photojournalist: a wizard. "My
operating principle," she says, "is that photos tell lies."
WHEN & WHERE"Laurie Simmons, The Music of Regret," is on view through Aug. 12,
at the Nassau County Museum of Art, 1Museum Dr., just off Route25A in Roslyn
Harbor. For exhibition hours and admission prices, call 516-484-9337 or go to