The Gibbes has gotten a makeover. The walls have been given a fresh coat of blue paint. Artwork has been dusted off and shifted around. The Charleston Renaissance room has yellow walls and comfy chairs, making it feel like a place where people can spend some time rather than drift past. At the far end of the museum, the contemporary paintings are gone, replaced by a bank of video monitors.
These monitors show a month in the life of an anonymous woman, using near-identical, carefully delayed clips to show her getting up, going to work, socializing, and coming home to bed. The screens are laid out like the days on a calendar. On weekends, the woman sleeps in. Because some of the clips are staggered, the effect is like a visual roundel — someone sings a line of a song, then another person sings the same line while the original voice continues in an overlapping sequence. The end result is a new song blending different voices to tell a familiar story in a different way.
The universally resonant piece, called “31,” uses sound to find new meanings in familiar imagery. When the woman dances in a club, the noise of sleepy breathing from another clip seems to slow her down. Humdrum office and home life is mixed with more intriguing shots of the subject visiting a doctor and a funeral parlor. The cumulative effect is mesmerizing.
The same goes for the rest of Simpson’s touring exhibition, a look back at the Brooklyn-born artist’s 20-year career. The carefully crafted show encompasses black-and-white photography, some narrative film work, high-concept ’80s art, and simple video vignettes — everything except ”Public Sex,” a stirring series of uninhabited city scenes accompanied by breathless dialogue that feels somewhat conspicuous in its absence.
Simpson’s message is usually strong, her images clear, and her point of view is grounded in harsh reality. It’s exactly how she sees herself and wishes to be seen, no bullshit.
A major chunk of the show deals with the objectification of African Americans in general and women in particular. There are photographic details of the body: hands, torsos, backs of heads, lips, asking us to make assumptions based on these snippets. “You’re Fine” shows a faceless secretary lying on her side, assuming a desirable position to get herself hired.
“Gestures/Reenactments” juxtaposes chatty text with shots of a posed male subject, also anonymous. Simpson gives new, unexpected meanings to her images by using cryptic words like, “So who’s your hero — /Me & my running buddy/ How his running buddy was standing/ When they thought he had a gun.”
The work is more immediate but less effective when Simpson uses video. “Call Waiting,” with its stately narrative and everyday dialogue, is remarkable for its inclusion of Asian and Latino actors, but that’s about it. Other shorts accentuate the lips again. In “Easy to Remember,” 15 kissers hum a Rodgers and Hart tune. “Cloudscape” stars African American artist Terry Adkins whistling on a soundstage, surrounded by smoke. As he whistles, the smoke moves and swirls around him. Once Simpson has demonstrated what the sound looks like, she envelops Adkins in the fumes, then runs the video backwards to clear the air.
Simpson has shot monochrome photographs to accompany many of her videos, drawing the viewer into a stark world of unnamed people. By creating empathy and encouraging the questioning of societal assumptions, she’s developed a body of work that’s worth the space it’s given. The Gibbes has raised the bar with this technically ambitious, comprehensive retrospective.
Lorna Simpson’s works are on view at the Gibbes Museum of Art through Dec. 2. 135 Meeting St. (843) 722-2706. www.gibbesmuseum.org $5-$9.