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Sex dolls and CPR dummies examine modern life in Simmons’ show at The Contemporary

Women are objectified. Men are emotionally M.I.A. Everyone is isolated. Photographer Laurie Simmonslooks at these issues and more in an exhibit opening Friday at St. Louis’ Contemporary Art Museum.

“Two Boys and the Love Doll” is Simmons’ first Midwestern solo show. She’s been working with dolls for 40 years. Back in the 1970s, Simmons made dollhouses that spoke to topics America was only beginning to grapple with, according to CAM curator Jeffrey Uslip.

“She would stage female dolls in a dollhouse and take a picture of them perhaps waiting on a sofa, perhaps waiting for her husband to come home,” Uslip said.

Her new work focuses on life-size objects, mail-order female sex dolls and male CPR dummies. The CAM exhibit consists of 20 photographs, several of which show a closed-eyed, open-mouthed figure in front of  a laptop screen.

Boy 2 - Silver Desk by Laurie Simmons
Credit Contemporary Art Museum

Uslip said these images raise important questions about isolation, especially given the figure’s original purpose.

Jeffrey Uslip
Credit Welsey Law
Jeffrey Uslip

“The doll itself is meant to be physically engaged with, to breathe life into a human that needs to be resuscitated,” Uslip said.

A 2011 opera called “Two Boys” inspired Simmons, with its messages of a dangerous internet world.

The internet is also where most sex dolls come from. Simmons began photographing her mail-order dolls just after they arrived in boxes at her door. She dressed them up and posed them in a variety of situations, addressing such topics as female objectification.

“How and why are you blurring the boundaries between the real and the unreal?” Uslip asked. “And as a female photographer, how might that question issues of contemporary feminism?”

Simmons reflects on her work with dollhouses, sex dolls and CPR dummies in this video.

Simmons is “a critically important, seminal female, feminist photographer in America,” according to Uslip.

But despite Simmons’ ubiquity and longevity, some may be more familiar with her 28-year-old daughter. Lena Dunham is the television wunderkind whose HBO show “Girls”has been called the “Friends” of the millennial generation.

2010 Lena Dunham portrait for W magazine by Laurie Simmons
Credit Laurie Simmons
2010 Lena Dunham portrait for W magazine by Laurie Simmons

Dunham’s first successful film, “Tiny Furniture,” has obvious ties to her mother’s work.

“I think they have a very important dialogue between mother and daughter,” Uslip said.

She’s got legs

Simmons created the doll photos and the CPR dummy images as two discrete bodies of work, according to Uslip. As curator, he worked with Simmons to bring them together with selections from both.

“Both are available for some kind of human interaction, one for resuscitation, and the other for sex,” Uslip said. “Together, they bring a more nuanced picture of how gender operates in each of these works.”

Simmons is also known for creating images of objects walking on women’s legs, such as her 1991 “Walking Gun.” The figure’s shadowy presence conjures up a film noir sensibility.

Walking Perfume Bottle, 2005, by Laurie Simmons
Credit Laurie Simmons
Walking Perfume Bottle, 2005, by Laurie Simmons

It’s no surprise that these works, which continued into the 21st century, are meant to reveal the reality of women as objects.

There’s a continuity of that revelation in “Two Boys and the Love Doll.” And her themes also resonate with CAM’s other, accompanying summer exhibits,according to Uslip.

“Laurie’s work speaks about the anxiety of our time and the connection and dislocation of human connectivity,” Uslip said. “And I think that is something that will be echoed in many of the exhibitions on view.”

Exhibitions opening Friday also include "Occupational Therapy," which uses a variety of media from painting to video to explore psychological conditions.

On May 29, Simmons will talk about “Two Boys and the Love Doll” in an evening event at The Contemporary.


Laurie Simmons’ “Two Boys and the Love Doll”

Where: Contemporary Art Museum, 3750 Washington Blvd., 63108

When: Exhibition opening 7-9 p.m., Friday, May 1; Artist talk Friday, 7 p.m., May 29 p.m.

How much: Free

Information: Contemporary Art Museum website

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.