Mother, Magazine, and Movies: Artist Laurie Simmons on Her New Film "My Art"
Artist Laurie Simmons sits on a white couch in the side room of her elder daughter Lena Dunham's West Hollywood 1920s home, flanked by two hairless cats, one a blue-gray and another more charcoal, smoky, tarred gray. The walls—a shade of Millennial Pink approaching Pepto-Bismol status—boast rainbow tulle curtains that make Simmons want to "do a Scarlett O'Hara and turn them into a dress." And the shelves. They're covered with tchotchkes of JFK sculptures and horse heads and green glass and colorful boxes and weird books and vintage Murano glass clowns.
Amid this, she's almost ready to leave Los Angeles—that'll be tomorrow—"and I'll have the screenings behind me." The screenings are for Simmon's first feature-length film, My Art, in which she plays the lead, Ellie Shine, a single, middle-aged artist longing for inspiration as she housesits for a famous friend in upstate New York. It's there that she meets a ragtag group of would-be actors who help her recreate famous film scenes—like A Clockwork Orange, Jules & Jim, and Some Like It Hot—in the form of DIY art videos.
Assuming things would be winding down for her, they're actually speeding up, "to do the things I have to do for what I call 'my day job,' which is being an artist," Simmons told Beyond The Interview last week. Her "day job" includes three shows in the spring— two in New York, one in London—and a touring retrospective at the Ft. Worth MoMa and MCA Chicago.
Simmons emerged from the art world in the late-'70s, early-'80s as part of the Pictures Generation, photographing surrogate figures (dollhouses, toys, dummies, cutouts, etc.) that simulated girlish pastimes and interrogated women's roles—a life-size Japanese sex doll is also part of the artist's canon.
Simmons spoke with Beyond The Interview about the artist's views on gender performance, the power of make-believe and dress-up, and why you should never call her an actress.
Beyond The Interview: Before we go into "My Art" I want to know about "your art." I first discovered your work in Tokyo at the Mori Art Museum's 10th Anniversary Love exhibition, which has since become my favorite group show of all time. What's the common theme among these subjects and mediums you work with, from photographing to writing and directing?
Laurie Simmons: I think if I had to boil it down to just a couple of words, it would be "women and interiority," whether it's women in interior spaces, literally, or the interior life of a woman. I always think the two words—women and interior—basically cover the entire trajectory of my work, from 1976 to the present. Even if there were no characters in the photos or even if the characters were men, I still think I can use those words to connect everything.
BTI: Your character Ellie personates famous screen sirens of Old Hollywood in her film reenactments—Did you ever want to be an actor in your formative years?
LS: I did. I still think that if cleanliness is next to godliness, actor-ness is next up. It's like the highest calling in terms of being an artist. I love what I do, but I think the idea of working with your body and your mind and channeling a character seems like the best thing you could possibly do. It just seems like an amazing way to spend your life.
BTI: What was the movie that might have cemented that?
LS: I'm not sure it was a movie as much as it was the idea of make-believe—dressing up in make-believe and pretending to be someone else and realizing people did that. My parents tended to take us to see musical comedies, things with Doris Day. But I always saw myself as an artist, that was always my identity since I was a little child. Any idea I had about being a movie star was probably in the same realm as being a ballet dancer. I felt very grounded even at an early age—I felt very planted in being an artist.
BTI: That's very lucky of you to have known that from the onset. Has that helped you in life?
LS: I think it helped my parents because they needed a way to explain my behavior, and in those days, that was like code for being different or being weird. So I feel that we both got great use out of the description. And maybe that's why my mother told me I was an artist at an early age, because I always liked to draw. And the odd part is that I listened to her because I tended not to listen to her. So I really never wavered throughout my entire life. And I'm still really uncomfortable [calling myself anything other than artist]. There were moments in Tiny Furniture when I'd be in an article and it’d say, "Laurie Simmons, actress," or when I designed a dollhouse, "Laurie Simmons, designer." Every time I see that I get very claustrophobic, and I think, "No, No, No, I'm an Artist."
BTI: What about "photographer"?
LS: I'll take that, but I really am an artist who uses a camera, because I've made sculpture and I've made video and film. So I feel I have much more latitude as an artist. But the lion's share of my work has been photographic-based, so I'm not as upset when I see that. But it has a much tighter interpretation, not as loose as being an artist.
BTI: My Art features a good number of big-name actors, including your daughter, Lena Dunham. I'm often absorbed while watching you two on screen, mother-daughter or not. But you're single and unmarried in this film. How did it feel to take off the maternal and matronly mask to play a Bizzaro World-version of Laurie Simmons?
LS: I was actually more comfortable in the role of Ellie than I was as Siri in Tiny Furniture. Maybe because Lena was writing the mother, and the mother didn't feel like me as a mother. It felt like a really distorted version. So every time I moved toward what I was comfortable with as playing a mother, she would pull me back to this other kind of mother. And I know that a lot people thought that was more of a documentary than it really was, and we were all playing ourselves, but we really weren't. That was really Lena's creation—I was Lena's creation. I feel like Ellie, though she's single, is so familiar to me as a friend, as people I've known. And even if Ellie's external life is really different from mine, I feel like her internal life is a lot like mine. I felt a greater ease playing her than I did playing Siri.
BTI: If this movie was to take place in the Los Angeles art scene, where would Ellie escape to and would she have a different relationship to the Hollywood industry?
LS: Wow, OK. I'm going to try to answer this with my limited knowledge of L.A. I think she'd go to a friend's house in Ojai, kind of near the Turtle Conservancy, so there'd definitely be a scene where she was wandering among huge turtles—I love that idea. I've been coming [to Los Angeles] for years, and I have lots of friends here, but I've never felt like Hollywood and the art scene were inextricably linked. They seem very separate to me. And maybe I'm wrong—Do you think I'm wrong about that?
BTI: I don't know. When I think of that relationship, Alex Israel immediately comes to mind—someone adored by Hollywood but also an outsider.
LS: But that's always been the case. Salvador Dali made a movie for Disney. There have always been artists that have been adopted by either industries or celebrities. That's always happened. But I think that Ellie could have her same life teaching and her same friends and her same fantasies, but maybe her fantasies would be even more profound living in L.A. because she'd be closer to the Hollywood sign, closer to the old movie theaters, and the original sights of her fantasies. Maybe she could access them even more.
BTI: I feel like the myth would be elevated so much more. Or it could go in the opposite direction, where she sees the artifice and downfall in the bright lights.
LS: But in her work she was definitely focusing on living in the past and also focusing on the women who taught her to perform gender. I learned a lot from watching my mother. It was like a combination of mother, magazines, and movies, figuring out how to actually perform being female. And it was a huge performance. We had to start wearing these very advanced undergarments when we were, like, 12 years old. You had to get your hair and make up done. There were no track pants and washing your hair and just letting it go natural. There was none of that.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.