Laurie Simmons (born in 1949), Walking Camera II (Jimmy the Camera), 1987, gelatin silver print. Carol and David Appel Collection. © 2019 Laurie Simmons, courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York

Female gaze

The Museum of Fine Arts’ About Face features portraiture by Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Rachel Harrison.

From now until March 29, the MMFA is presenting About Face: Photographs by Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Rachel Harrison, all major American female artists whose photos are on loan from the Collection of Carol and David Appel.

The first image you see when you walk into the lower-level gallery is by Laurie Simmons: “Walking Camera II (Jimmy the Camera).” The image is Simmons’ tribute to her friend and mentor Jimmy De Sana, who died of AIDS three years after the picture was made. The gelatin silver print is massive, just over 210 centimeters tall, looming over you with De Sana’s shapely legs poking out from the absurd prop-camera lurching above them. It’s the only photograph by Simmons, but it dominates the room. Carol Appel came over to speak animatedly about the friendship between Simmons and Cindy Sherman — the mutual respect and influence they had over one another. The rest of the first room may be devoted entirely to Sherman’s photographs, but “Walking Camera II” reminds us of Sherman’s broader connection to other female photographers finding peculiar and innovative ways of tackling domesticity and objectification.

The Appels’ collection features a large array of Sherman’s photographs, spanning 1976–2016. While not a retrospective, the collection gives an excellent sense of Sherman’s trajectory, of the same meticulous approach behind the entirety of her Murder Mystery series (1976–2000), to her works in the History Portraits series, such as the huge “Untitled no. 205” and “Untitled no. 222, both in which she wears uncanny and half-revolting pregnancy suits. It’s easy to become numbed to standard art school fare, of which Sherman is certainly a part, but seeing so many of her disparate works brought together calls to mind her sheer skill, not to mention the gentleness she brings to, as curator Mary-Dailey Desmarais put it, “the gesture of inhabiting this incredible array of characters.” I was reminded of the strange mixture of compassion and critique in her gaze; in her embodiment of women who seem pathetic and regal all at once.

The second room in the exhibit is devoted to 32 prints from a series of 57 by Rachel Harrison entitled Voyage of the Beagle after Charles Darwin’s book of the same name. Harrison first became known as a sculptor, and her photographic work is similarly concerned with physical objects — in this case representations of faces and bodies, human and otherwise. Beyond Harrison’s status as a female artist of repute, her photographic work feels like a bit of an oddity after Sherman and Simmons. The series plays with the notion of the naturalist observing and collecting, and is funny, almost, in the way that juxtaposing a shaggy stuffed horse and a cheap mannequin in an equally shaggy wig is funny. However, the fact of Harrison’s insistence that the series always be presented in the same order, rather than appear as precision on her part, feels instead as though the linkages between the images are so tenuous, so shallow at base, that the audience will only get it if the puffy cartoonish pizza shop mascot or the cosplay mannequin or the taxidermied deer’s head are placed just so. There’s definitely a certain delight, a certain mischievous and contemporary chaos at play, but the pop cultural mashup in Voyage of the Beagle remains ultimately less affecting than the precise and art historical consciousness of Simmons and Sherman both.

Nevertheless, as the curatorial text suggests, the works of all three photographers “force us to recognize that the deeper reality is always beyond the face of the image, outside the frame, in the intervening spaces.” This may be a photographic truism, but one it still feels useful to revisit. ■

About Face continues in the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1380 Sherbrooke W.) until March 29, 2020. Ages 0–20 free, General Admission $24, $12 after 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, see here for more details.