Lorraine Simms: Phantom
Galerie Deux Poissons (Montreal)
April 11 - May 18, 2019
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, April 2019
“The shadows are a version of you. You lift your arm, and the shadow lifts its arm. You step forward, and the shadow steps forward...I am its controller, but also delighted and amazed at the speed and dexterity I didn’t know I had. It’s an extension of me, and it’s more than an extension of me.”
-- William Kentridge, In Praise of Shadows (1)
The fine art of harvesting shadows is one that Lorraine Simms has effortlessly finessed in the drawings exhibited here -- and in a manner undreamt of by the osteopaths among us.
Born nightside, each of the animal forms she draws out shadow renderings from are notably members of an endangered or otherwise vulnerable species—and these eloquent drawings thus possess interesting ecological overtones at a time when the human biosphere is trembling on the brink. Simms celebrates the survival of various species even as she issues a clarion call of warning that they might well soon disappear. Harvesting the cast shadows of a wide range of animal forms, including taxidermy and the skins and bones of sundry animals considered most at risk, Simms casts a welcome light on the iconic status that they still enjoy in popular consciousness and culture.
Simms has been here before: her work of the last decade has thematically featured animal forms – plush, taxidermy and bones –in series of paintings, drawings and sculpture. Her most recent work seen here is interrogatory and invitingly ambiguous.
The drawings in Phantom were developed during a research residency at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In 2018, Simms was granted rare access to the collections in the Mammalogy Department at the museum. She worked tirelessly with the bones and skins of many dead animals, including bats, whales, bears, bison, hares, and wolves.
Simms brings a formidable intensity to the fore here in the making and it is one that is fed by her enviable observational skills, and a desire to darken and deepen the allure of the shadows cast by the empire of bones she has so astutely sorted. The technical virtuosity is on a par with the expansiveness of Simms’ imaginative wherewithal.
Simms methodically laid out sundry animal specimens like a template onto her drawing paper and spent endless hours tracing out the contours of their cast shadows from below. Using graphite or conté, she worked to establish depth, range and tactual nuance. This is where the ambiguous and the purely liminal enter in. At times, the drawings seemed overwhelmingly ambiguous, even as were haunted by referents we could not quite place while, at other moments, we connected strongly and viscerally with what we recognized (such as the bison skull.) The process of translating traced outlines into shadowed drawings is one not only of bridging the liminal space between them but one of an almost alchemical order of formal distillation, arrestingly wrestling atavisms out of a seeming chaos of infinite figural possibilities.
This is true of both Hypsignatus monstrosus, (Belgian Congo: Arakubi, Zaire, Oriental (Skin, AMNH 48653) graphite on acid-free paper, 56 cmx 76 cm., 22” x 30”, 2019) and Bison (Skull, AMNH 3758), Graphite on acid-free paper, 127 cm x 96.5 cm., 38” x 50”, 2019) and other works in the exhibition. Shadowy atavisms surge up from the realm of pre-reflective experience, inflecting the now of our seeing with almost premonitory avowal, while both preserving an indelible link to the material world and to the submerged memories of an archaeopsychic past.
The intimacy of Simms’s ministrations is difficult to overstate. Working in close proximity with the bones, her drawings are tactual and true. They result in visceral recognition and uncanny aura. Her shadowy drawn forms occupy a purely liminal space, a potent projection zone and one that reminds us that, as J.G. Ballard once noted, “Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.” 
In these drawings, harvested shadows make the dead animals that cast them live again, with otherworldly feral grace. This is no exercise in enervating nostalgia, but a demonstration of daunting draughtsmanship.
Like the cast shadows of the animals in line drawings etched onto the rough walls of Lascaux and Alamira in the Dordogne regions of southern France, the shadowy outlines here resurrect the animal forms with archetypal and atavistic force. Hauntingly beautiful in their mien, the shadow drawings that remain remind us of just how much we have to lose in undermining the natural world, and thus they alert us to the imminent prospect of our own peril. WM
(1) William Kentridge Six Drawing Lessons: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2014). South-African artist Kentridge described the experience of an 8 year-old standing on a beach watching his shadow lengthen in “Drawing Lesson One: In Praise of Shadows.”
(2) J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (Berkley Books, 1962).
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.