Re-imagining Historical Photographs: Paintings by Lorna Simpson and Cheung Sze-lit

Lorna Simpson; Three Figures – detail view (2014, ink and screenprint on 12 clayboard panels); Venice Biennale 2015

In the two works featured on this page, the artists have taken existing photographs as their inspiration.

Three Figures by Lorna Simpson

Before I describe the background of this artwork, I would like you to take a look at the two images of this painting and think about your own response. What is going on in the picture? What is the painting about? What feelings does the painting evoke?

Lorna Simpson; Three Figures (2014, ink and screenprint on 12 clayboard panels); Venice Biennale 2015

Three Figures was created by African-American artist Lorna Simpson. She created a screen print of an existing photograph and then painted over the print with ink to create the final work. In an interview with Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, the artist describes the background of the work:

It is actually based on an AP news photo…a famous image from the civil rights era of three individuals, I think two women and one man, being hosed down by police..with a fire hose….while they are trying to hold hands.

For me, that image is an iconic image within the civil rights era; it also, in terms of the way that it looks to me, looks like three dancers….Certainly these kind of outstretched hands and the gestural quality of the bodies could suggest many different things and there’s a certain beauty and grace to that, but the reality of what the image is is kind of contradictory to me…. It’s a kind of description of the kind of violence during the civil rights movement against the protesters….

It depends on one’s vocabulary of visuals from a particular time period of American history if one picks up on it as a protest image or as something else.

The Modern Arts Notes Podcast No. 270: Lorna Simpson

The actual photo can be seen here:  allthatsinteresting.com/civil-rights-movement-photos#22

The last sentence in the quote from Lorna Simpson is quite important. If you are familiar with the photo, you will likely interpret the painting in the context of the civil rights movement or in the context of protests in general. Nevertheless, with the three rather small and isolated figures people joining hands in solidarity to face some kind of undefined and violent maelstrom in front of them, the theme of courage and solidarity in the face of violent oppression can come though even if the viewer is unfamiliar with the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s.

I asked a couple of people in Hong Kong who are in their early twenties (and who would therefore be unlikely to be familiar with the imagery of the American civil rights movement) to briefly interpret the painting, and these are their responses.

TN: I think there is a couple walking on a bridge, close to a waterfall. It seems that there is a girl on the left who looks quite worried and seems to have lost something in the water, but there is a third person like a man on the right, who is like holding on to them. I think this piece of work brings me feelings like the world is falling apart. People are trying to hold on to each other, while losing something they treasure in their life.

WW: I see the first pic as  three people helping each other to go across a bridge from somewhere to somewhere while the condition is a bit dangerous while the girl at the end is trying to look for someone else she can also offer a helping hand to..

ML: The figure of the man is trying to hold back the woman, who is searching for something, or they are trying to cross probably a river or flooded area. The column on the right is hung downward a bit (if those panels were put back into position, there would be three people holding hands together), but now what I see is that the man on the right-hand side is probably the past/future shadow of the middle man. 

The interpretations share some common characteristics: the people in the painting are facing a kind of dangerous and/or challenging situation, and all three interpretations present the scene as part of a larger story.  Two  interpretations include a sense of helping, while the other refers to ‘holding back’ (which could also be a way of trying to help). Interestingly, all three interpretations included searching for someone or something. In the original photo, the three protesters are not physically searching for anything, but the quest for equal rights could itself be considered a kind of search to recover that which has been lost— freedom, dignity, equality.

Mini-bio: Lorna Simpson is influential African-American multimedia artist. She was born in New York in 1960. As a teenager, she attended the the High School of Art and Design and took summer courses at at the Art Institute of Chicago. She traveled extensively before studying photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and fine art at the University of California, San Diego. During the 1980s, she became well known for her works with photographs and text that explored themes of  gender, identity, culture, history and memory. She lives in New York and her work is displayed in museums around the world.

A Quiet Box by Cheung Sze-lit

Cheung Sze-lit; A Quiet Box: Paintings 4, 5 and 6 (Oil Painting); Fotanian 2014 (the A-lift)

A Quiet Box is a series of six oil paintings by Chinese artist Cheung Sze-lit (張施烈). Again, before reading about the background take at three of the images from the series and think of your own response to the paintings.What is going on in the series? What is it it about? What feelings does it evoke?

Cheung Sze-lit; A Quiet Box: Painting No. 2 (Oil Painting); Fotanian 2014 (the A-lift)
Cheung Sze-lit; A Quiet Box: Painting No. 3 (Oil Painting); Fotanian 2014 (the A-lift)
Painting No. 6 (detail view)

The paintings are based on a series of photographs of a nuclear bomb test that show how a typical house would be destroyed by the blast wave. The original photographs were taken in 1953 and are described in this Wired article: Nuclear Blasts Show Terrifying Power. The house was actually a couple of miles away from the center of the blast!

In his work based on photographs, Cheung Sze-lit is focusing on trying to bring out the aspects of that photo which create a personal connection to the viewer. He explains that this approach is based on Roland Barthe’s ideas about interpreting photographs. In his book Camera Lucida, Barthe’s argues that there are two main ways of interpreting a photo. One way is based on cultural, linguistic and political interpretations (which he calls ‘the studium’) and the other way, the approach which Cheung Sze-lit is focusing on, concerns the details of the photo which the viewer reacts or connects to on a much more personal level (which Barth calls ‘the punctum’).

For example, based on Lorna Simpson’s interview,  it appears that the thing that gave her a personal connection to the original photo of the three protesters (i.e., the punctum) was the contrast between the graceful movement of the three figures in the photo and the violent oppression they faced, and this is what is brought out in her painting.

When I saw the images in A Quiet Box, I immediately recognized them as photos of a nuclear test. I am pretty sure I first saw the photos that inspired the painting when I was growing up in Canada during the 70s or early 80s. At that time, for people in Canada, a country sandwiched between two nuclear superpowers—the USA and the Soviet Union—that were in the middle of a decades-long cold war, the prospect of getting caught in the middle of a nuclear holocaust was a very real concern. It wasn’t something that kept kids awake at night, but it was a thought that might sit there in the back of your mind. Therefore, for me, the images in A Quiet Place were instantly recognizable and evoked a strange sort of nostalgia, a mostly-forgotten old anxiety of the possibility of being annihilated in a nuclear war.

The choice of a house as the subject of the test (and as the subject of the photographs and paintings) is important in that a house represents civilians, it represents family and it represents protection. The destruction of a house emphasizes that it is the innocents who will suffer in a nuclear attack and it shows how vulnerable we all are. The house, built to protect us and shelter our families, withstands the combined force of the blast (the force of the shock wave, the powerful blast winds that accompany it and the thermal pulse) for just a fraction of a second before being blown apart in a spectacular explosion.

The image I found most striking was the one with roiling black smoke against the wall of the house. The smoke reminded me of something in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke—the monstrous dark writhing infection that drove the boar god mad.

Again, I asked people for their interpretations:

TN: I suppose that there is some kind of weird fire or devilish stuff that tries to conquer the world… since it is spreading all over the world; it also burns down a house. One thing i can’t understand is about the match in front of the house. The match’s shadow was like a woman in one painting. It became shiny and bright when the house was all on fire… I think this series is quite scary—feelings of danger, desperation, darkness, horror… and just a little hope.

WW: I think it is something like a progression of erosion of darkness to the place. As if by the end the place has been completely destroyed.

ML: For the second series the strokes were a bit horrifying, so I dared not to stare for long at night (so I will just discuss  what I glimpsed).  I saw a time-lapse during which a house burns down. Was there a shifting in ‘figure-ground’ with the white house engulfed by the blackness versus the white fire and the black remaining?  The horror comes in with the distorted strokes and (suspicious human faces?) hidden under the stokes. 

Though none of the viewers recognized it as a nuclear test, they all noted the process of destruction and commented on the blackness and/or brightness. It seems that even though the viewers did not know exactly what the subject matter was, they were all able to sense in the paintings the violent destructiveness and horrifying nature of an atomic bomb blast

One interesting thing is that it seems that the other viewers took more time than I did to look into things like brushstrokes, minor details and the interplay between light and darkness. Perhaps that is an advantage of not knowing exactly what the subject matter of an art work is—the viewer may be encouraged to examine the painting in more detail in order to come up with an interpretation.

The solo exhibition show pictured here was organized by the A-lift gallery (www.a-lift.hk/index2.html) as part of Fotanian 2014 event (the Fotanian is an art studio open day showcasing the artists operating in the industrial neighborhood of Fotan in Hong Kong: (www.fotanstudios.org).

At the exhibition, some of the artist’s initial notes, sketches and drafts were also on show.

Cheung Sze-lit; preliminary sketches for the oil painting series ‘A Quiet Box’
Preliminary sketches
Cheung Sze-lit; the artist’s notes for his oil painting series ‘A Quiet Box’
The artist’s notes
The artist’s notes

The artist was also on hand to describe his work.

Artist Cheung Sze-lit discusses his oil painting series ‘A Quiet Box’ with Veron; Fotanian 2014 (the A-lift). . Photo by longzijun.
Artist Cheung Sze-lit discusses his oil painting series ‘A Quiet Box’ with Veron; Fotanian 2014 (the A-lift)

Mini-bio: Cheung Sze-lit is a Hong Kong-based artist. He studied at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University. He specializes in figurative paintings, sketches and drawings.


Go Further

This section includes discussion questions, an art challenge and links to online photo galleries and websites.

Artist Websites

Galleries

Higher resolution images (e.g. 2048 x 1365) can be viewed online at:

Three Questions

  1. How closely did your own interpretations of the subject matter of the paintings correspond to the actual scenes depicted in the original photographs?
  2. The paintings are quite similar to the original photographs. To what extent where the artists able to bring out the key elements of the photographs and create something entirely new? How was this achieved?
  3. In Three Figures, the three panels on the right have been shifted down. What is the effect/meaning of that?

Art Challenge

Find a photo by someone else that resonates with you. Create a drawing or painting based on the photo. Try to bring out the elements of the photo that led you to have such a powerful response


~ text and photos by longzijun

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