The Art World Works From Home: Laurie Simmons Is Now Photographing Props Instead of People and Taking Dog-Training Lessons on Zoom
The art world may be working remotely, but it certainly does not stop. We're checking in with art-world professionals to see how they work from home.
The art world may be on lockdown, but it certainly does not stop. During this unprecedented time, we’re checking in with art-world professionals, collectors, and artists to get a glimpse into how they are working from home.
Laurie Simmons rose to fame alongside the Pictures Generation artists of the 1980s with her intricately staged photographs of dolls, ventriloquist dummies, and other toys. She later evolved into filmmaking, with her musical starring Meryl Streep and a cast of Alvin Ailey dancers, The Music of Regret, debuting in 2006, and, 10 years later, a feature that cast Simmons herself in the lead role, My Art.
In recent years, Simmons had shifted her focus to photographing people, including her two children, Lena Dunham and Cyrus Grace Dunham—until the lockdown hit and she retreated into isolation with her husband, the painter Carroll Dunham.
We spoke with the artist from her home in rural Connecticut about how the shutdown has changed the direction of her art, what she’s enjoying most in her voracious cultural diet, and how she makes her favorite peanut butter cookies.
Where is your new “office”? Has the location changed over the course of the pandemic?
I’ve always worked at home. Around a decade ago, my husband, Carroll Dunham, moved his studio to a vacant school in rural Connecticut. I maintained I could only work in New York City, but a couple years ago I finally moved my studio too… books, props, and print archives. I keep my originals and slide books in a small apartment in New York. I go to New York City to see friends and go to galleries, museums, and openings. I hadn’t really admitted to myself that I live in Connecticut but now it’s abundantly clear that I live where my work is.
What are you working on right now and has your work changed now that you are doing it from home?
Six years ago, I started shooting people (as opposed to inanimate objects). I was in the midst of a bunch of shoots with models, which of course are all cancelled. Now, I’m back to shooting tabletop, which is where I began in the late ’70s. It’s definitely a quieter, more focused and peaceful way to work—which is helpful now. All my props are here and completely over-organized because that’s what I do when I’m procrastinating. I have time now to circle back to objects I’ve never used. I just pulled out my nurse puppets from my 2006 movie The Music of Regret. Like everyone, I’m thinking a lot about doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers, especially as my sister Bonnie is a frontline ER doctor.
There’s still not enough time for me to figure out if my work is changing, apart from scale—that could take another 20 years. I understand that people are working overtime to fill the sudden void and to stay connected online—which for a lot of artists means daily requests from institutions, galleries, and online magazines for material: Q&As, Instagram takeovers, IGTV, Zoom conversations.
I think this will level out in some way. We’re really in the nascent stages of all of this.
Were any projects of yours interrupted by the lockdown?
“All of Them Witches,” a show I co-organized with my friend, curator and writer Dan Nadel, closed early at Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles.
Two shows I was excited to be included in—both connected to ventriloquism—are postponed. One is at the Walker Art Center, “The Paradox of Stillness: Art, Object, and Performance,” and the other at LACMA, “NOT I: Throwing Voices (1500 BCE–2020 CE).”
The Jimmy DeSana retrospective (I oversee the estate) has been postponed as well. I’ve been working with the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Brooklyn Museum on this show, which is so vibrant and critical right now. DeSana’s late work focused on the AIDS epidemic and his facing his own mortality.
What are you reading, both online and off?
I mostly read fiction and I just read most of Jennifer Egan’s books. I liked Look at Me because I think a lot about masking (especially now) and Manhattan Beach, which was mostly set in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. It was great to read while we watched The Plot Against America on HBO, which was adapted from the Philip Roth novel that imagines Charles Lindbergh as a celebrity demagogue president who has no political experience, who plays to bigotry and fear, and ran on the slogan of America First… sound familiar?
I just finished My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell and am now trying to read about (and understand) some of the controversy surrounding it. I’m also rereading my friend Lynne Tillman’s book Men and Apparitions because it feels relevant.
What do I read online? Too much. I’m determined to vanquish my inner news junkie.
Have you taken up any new hobbies?
I’m doing dog training classes on Zoom, which is a great distraction for me and my three-year-old collie, Penny. She can ring a variety of buzzers with her paw in exchange for bits of hot dog.
I ran into a neighbor on a walk and told him I was trying to learn more about classical music. He recommended Haruki Murakami’s “Absolutely On Music” conversations with [conductor] Seiji Ozawa. The back-and-forth between them is sweet and a good roadmap for a classical music novice like me.
Oh, and I got some tap shoes for my last birthday…
Where is the first place you want to travel once this is over?
I miss New York a lot. I just want to sit in the Hollywood Diner at 16th Street and Sixth Avenue, order a grilled cheese, and watch people who are not socially distancing.
If you are feeling stuck while self-isolating, what’s your best method for getting un-stuck?
If you mean “stuck” as in making artwork, I’m finding it more difficult to work than I normally do. I get up every day, make a to-do list, and then do maybe half of it. Everything takes longer, from getting and making food to sending packages. The usual rhythms are completely upended. I’m impressed with artists who see this as endless uninterrupted studio time—or so they say (LOL). Maybe I’ll get there eventually. A lot of time is taken up with staying connected to friends and family, especially those who are alone, and keeping up with fundraising stuff from before we all went to ground. There is an election coming right up, which is now a truly life-and-death matter.
If I’m “stuck” in ruminative thoughts about the pandemic, the disgusting and abhorrent response from the federal government, the inequities, pain, suffering, and losses on a global and personal level, then I listen to music, walk the dog, or do both at once.
I’ve never felt so lucky to be able to take a solitary walk in a green place.
What was the last TV show, movie, or YouTube video you watched?
We watched 16 hours of Ken Burns’s Country Music. I like [narrator] Peter Coyote’s voice. When we were on the part about music of the Great Depression, the facts jumped out: In 1933, 15 million people were unemployed out of a population of 125.5 million. Right now, 36 million people are seeking unemployment out of a population of 330 million. Even I can get those numbers.
We found a Danish series called The Legacy, which is like a Scandinavian Succession. The matriarch is a Danish woman artist whose death leaves her family scrambling for artworks, money, property—a very plausible mess. I love the art world details.
YouTube video? If it’s your birthday, I send you Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson singing “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby,” and I listen to it every time.
What are you most looking forward to doing once social distancing has been lifted?
Hugging my kids Cyrus and Lena, who are each 3,000 miles away in opposite directions.
Favorite recipe to cook at home?
The artist Mary Simpson, along with her husband and her baby, Dale, is quarantining in a building across the yard. She gave me this recipe. It’s a three-ingredient peanut butter cookie sprinkled with coarse salt.
Salted Peanut Butter Cookies
Barely adapted, with a bunch of extra notes, from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook.
Yields 26 to 28 cookies with a 1 2/3 tablespoon or #40 scoop. (I halved the recipe and regret it so much.)
1 3/4 cups (335 grams) packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups (450 grams) smooth peanut butter (see note at end)
Coarse-grained sea salt, to finish
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the light brown sugar and eggs until smooth. Whisk in the vanilla extract, then the peanut butter until smooth and completely incorporated; you shouldn’t be able to see any ribbons of peanut butter. Ovenly says you know the dough is ready when it has the consistency of Play-Doh, but I can tell you as the mom of a Play-Doh fanatic that mine was thinner, softer.
If you’d like to get those pretty striations across the top of the cookies, chill the dough by freezing it in its bowl for 15 minutes, stirring it once (so the edges don’t freeze first) before scooping it. If you’re not obsessed with these markings, you can scoop it right away. Scoop or spoon the dough into balls—Ovenly uses about a 1/4-cup scoop (probably #16); I use a 1 2/3 tablespoons or #40 scoop. Place on prepared pan. For the tallest final shape, place the tray in the freezer for 15 minutes before baking.
Sprinkle the dough balls lightly with coarse-grained sea salt just before baking. Bake smaller cookies for 14 to 15 minutes and larger for 18 to 20. When finished, cookies should be golden at edges. They’ll need to set on the sheet for a minute or two before they can be lifted intact to a cooling sheet. Trust me, you should let these cool completely before eating so the different textures (crisp outside, soft inside) can set up.
Do ahead: You can definitely make the dough in advance and either refrigerate it for a couple days or freeze it longer. However, if I were going to freeze it, I’d probably go ahead and scoop it first. You can bake them right from the freezer.
About chilling the dough: The Ovenly recipe says you can scoop and bake the cookies right away, but they keep their shape better if you chill them in the freezer for 15 minutes first. I tried it with and without and did find a better dome and final shape with the 15 minutes after. However, I was incredibly charmed by the striated marks from the cookie scoop on top of the cookie I bought last weekend, as well as in the photo in their book, and I realized that I couldn’t get it at home with just-mixed dough; you’ll get more of a blob shape from your scoop. So, I also chilled the dough for 15 minutes before scooping it and was then satisfied with the shape. It’s not necessary unless you’re as taken with top pattern as I am.
Two questions I suspect someone will ask very soon: Can you make this with all-natural peanut butter and can you make this with almond or a nut butter? The answer to both is yes, however, the authors themselves warn that you’ll get the best final shape and texture from a smooth, thick, processed peanut butter like Skippy (their recommendation; updated to note, thanks to a commenter suggestion, that the 16.3-ounce jar of Skippy is estimated to contain 1 3/4 cups, saving you some measuring). I suspect an almond or cashew butter will have a similar effect as natural peanut butter.
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