Cabinets of Curiosities: LIT: The Work of Rose B.Simpson

Cabinets of Curiosities: LIT: The Work of Rose B.Simpson

Published in The New Mexican, Pasatiempo, Art in Review, Dec 7-13, 2018 by Michael Abatemarco

Throughout her career, Santa Clara Pueblo artist Rose B. Simpson has maintained a self-reflective, personal connection that permeates all of her work. Whether she’s crafting monumental warrior figures in clay and mixed media, wall-mounted masks, dolls, fashion designs, or other figurative works, she employs the same aesthetic in each piece, conveying a sense of raw, unpretentious earthiness.

One never doubts that her connection to the earth is authentic. Simpson spent her childhood with her family living off the grid at Santa Clara’s Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute. As she explains in a videotaped interview on view in the exhibition LIT: The Work of Rose B. Simpson, her experience was entirely disconnected from the day-to-day experience of neighbor kids whose families had televisions, houses, cars, and other amenities that were never a part of her early upbringing. Simpson learned to be resourceful and brings to her work an ethical use of natural materials. The exhibit, currently on display at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, continues through October 2019.

LIT is a mid-career retrospective, Simpson’s first. Primarily a show of sculpture, LIT is presented in a reverent way that allows the viewer to commune with each work singly while also providing a cohesive sense of the relationships between the works. Most impressive is the arrangement of several life-sized figurative sculptures, each individually placed in a low-light setting that feels intimate and respectful, like entering a sanctum.

Although LIT draws from early periods in Simpson’s career, many of the works on view were made for the exhibition, which is the result of two years of planning. Included are seven of Simpson’s Ancestor Masks, which adorn the walls, encircling the space as though bearing witness to all of her exhibited works — and by extension, herself. The clay masks, as well as other figures in the exhibition, feature symbols based on her Santa Clara heritage as well as on her own tattoos. In this way, she draws a direct line between past and present, between the living and the dead. While some narrative aspects of her work are explicated by the accompanying text, others remain elusive to the viewer. Regardless, one still can appreciate the simplicity of the masks and the benign sense of their presence.

The text panels, printed on metal in a stately presentation, are wisely kept at a distance from the objects of art. Only one panel is included for each of several sections, and each section represents a body or series of work. This allows the viewer to approach each piece on its own terms, ready to engage with it, rather than mostly reading about it. The text helps explain Simpson’s motivations in creating each series, and those motivations are often intensely personal. Each work, and the exhibit as a whole, reflects the artist’s own nature and feels like a self-portrait. In fact, a statement by the artist on one of the text panels describes them as such.

But most of the works don’t bear the title “self-portrait.” An exception is a sculpture from 2016 made from clay, steel, leather, and wire, in which Simpson imagines herself as a V-6 auto engine — a human form with metal parts that look like an engine overtaking her torso. On one hand, the work reflects her interest in working on old cars (she drives a souped-up El Camino named after famed Santa Clara potter Maria Martinez); on the other hand, she also compares the work, as the text panel explains, to a pregnancy (she felt as if her body were an engine running on its own momentum).

Some of her figurative works display a subtle androgyny. They don’t have the youthful face of Simpson, per se, and appear neither male nor female, neither old nor young. These are warrior figures from a body of work called Directed. Simpson created one life-sized bust representing each of the cardinal directions, and the sculptures are oriented accordingly within the space, facing the center of the room. These figures reflect Simpson’s interest in exploring her vision of post-apocalyptic aesthetics. The warriors are adorned in leather masks, strips of leather, sinew, and jewelry made from discs of clay and metal. They have the appearance of tribal figures but are cast in more imaginative, rather than traditional, dress. “I always wondered what the world would look like post-apocalyptic,” Simpson told Pasatiempo in 2014. “I was feeling there would be a sense of freedom to be who you were without fitting into social structures or norms.” A fifth figure, a ceramic infant, lies prostate in the center of Directed — at the nucleus of the whole exhibit — surrounded by the four warriors. The piece is titled simply BabyDirected reflects a sense of becoming, as though the warriors represent what the infant child, with its nascent identity, could grow into.

Most impressive in the way this central body of work is exhibited is the fact that each warrior, while positioned in relation to the others and to the figure at the center, is arranged in the space in a way that connects it to other bodies of work as well. One doesn’t go from room to room in LIT but rather from area to area in a self-contained environment. An accompanying display outside the main gallery houses Simpson’s own spin on the cabinet of curiosity: hand-selected personal items that include Hot Wheels and a scale model of the title creature from the Predator series of science-fiction films, the latter providing some sense of the sources of inspiration for the look of her warrior figures and fashion designs. There is also artwork given to her by friends, such as a painting by Cannupa Hanska Luger, and other ephemera that reflect the artist’s personal tastes and interests.

Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, 704 Camino Lejo, 505-982-4636; through Oct. 6, 2019