Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 29, 2023
Rose B. Simpson: Legacies
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, August 11, 2022–May 7, 2023
Rose B. Simpson: Dream House
Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, PA, October 7, 2022–March 26, 2023
Rose B. Simpson: Legacies, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, August 11, 2022–January 29, 2023 (photograph provided by the author)

Over the last five years, solo exhibitions of leading Indigenous artists have moved into mainstream museums and galleries. In tandem, these artists’ works are finally appearing in permanent collection galleries in this country as recognition of the important dialogues Native American artists continue to raise for the field, particularly about the legacies of settler colonialism, the impacts of climate change, and the continued fight for Indigenous sovereignty. Artist Rose B. Simpson is part of this critical shift. Her sculptures are now on permanent view across the United States, from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, to the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. In fall 2022, two solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia mark this milestone in Simpson’s career.

As an enrolled member of the Santa Clara Pueblo (Kha’po Owingeh) and descendant of a long line of ceramic artists, Simpson (b. 1983) has achieved widespread recognition through her mobilization of clay sourced locally from northern New Mexico. The artist holds a BFA and MFA from the Institute of American Indian Art as well as an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and attended the automotive science program at Northern New Mexico College. Simpson’s work offers an exploration not only of human form, but also of the body’s relations with ancestors, earth, and the beholder. The two shows reviewed here—one focused on sculpture and the other on installation—present very different articulations of the body and its relations. The former is presented as a small survey of the artist’s array of themes in figural sculpture and is accessible for a public new to Simpson’s work. The latter offers a series of rooms for the viewer to experience without the assistance of straightforward didactic materials and is, therefore, an even deeper meditation on intra- and interpersonal relationships only if the visitor invests time for equally deep reflection.

The ICA’s Rose B. Simpson: Legacies is a single-room retrospective containing eleven of the sculptor’s signature figures made between 2014 and 2022. Upon entering the gallery, visitors are confronted by Root A (2019), a life-size sentinel statue whose crossed arms and resolute stance assert the boundaries of the exhibition. A steel gear connects a carved face to the figure’s shoulders, providing a void where the voice box should be. According to Simpson, as quoted in the wall text, this void is a “ready thoroughfare for the voices yet to be heard.” Root A is accompanied by seven other sculptures installed in a circle along the perimeter of the room, while the remaining three stand in the center. Comprised of works from private collections, these sculptural groupings vary in the number of figures as well as in scale, ranging between two and seven feet in height. In a departure from exhibition norms, curators positioned object labels along the gallery wall instead of with each work. I was initially confounded by this curatorial decision, but it did slow down the process of looking. I observed many visitors return to a sculpture after matching it to the proper label, prompting fresh discussion.

The gallery’s turquoise walls complement the natural brightness of the different clays that have become a hallmark of Simpson’s work. As part of a practice built around sustainable living, Simpson sources clay from the local landscape around Santa Clara Pueblo and incorporates repurposed materials such as the steel gear in Root A. Many sculptural groupings display Simpson’s “slap-slab” technique, or the layering of thin strips of clay, that creates a sense of liveliness and dynamism. This delicate rendering stimulates a tactile response, providing opportunities for visitors to look closely and witness the artist’s hand in constructing these figures. The sculptures are punctuated with other materials—from rigid laser-cut iron to pliable woven twine. Most sculptures are presented upon unvarnished plywood plinths whose texture amplifies the palpable qualities of the natural materials at the core of Simpson’s works. The interweaving of raw and industrial materials brings themes of past and future into dialogue across the exhibition space.

Many figures in Legacies directly engage with histories of colonial violence, intergenerational trauma, and personal resilience. The sculptures do not linger upon these painful histories, but insist upon reparative work in the present, both among people through figuration and with the earth through material facture. At the center of the exhibition is Genesis Squared (2019), a sculpture in vivid red clay of a maternal figure holding a child on her hip. She stands atop a metal base with cut-out shapes that represent historical traumas inherited through matrilineal lines. A second metal image of a mother-child embrace crowns the clay group, referencing the traditional tablita headdresses worn in Pueblo ceremonies. Highly reflective metal rivets run up the mother’s body, creating a visual and material link between past harm and future hope. The work explores legacies of violence towards women through both representation and its intricate materiality, which extends to the violence humans commit against the earth.

In his introduction to Legacies, ICA curator Jeffrey De Blois describes these sculptures as “post-apocalyptic visions of the world,” placing Simpson in dialogue with the movement of Indigenous futurisms. Recognizing the violence of colonialism as an apocalyptic state, this artistic movement aims to envision a future of rebuilding relations guided by Indigenous cosmologies, oral histories, and ways of life. When speaking about her artistic process, Simpson uses her platform to discuss sustainable living as a mode for building a better future. In particular, the artist often emphasizes clay’s role in nourishing crops in the ground and holding water in vessels to sustain life forms, positioning Pueblo knowledge as a source for world making in a time of climate crisis. In other words, clay is not just the primary medium of her sculptures but a foundation for revealing and honoring human and extrahuman relations. While Simpson discusses these connections in videos accompanying Legacies, exhibition didactics mainly focus on the relationship between form and history. Additional focus on material meaning, which is central for Simpson, would further enrich the show, since the significance of her particular materials may be unfamiliar to visitors.

At the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Dream House recalibrates the connection between body and environment through a series of installations based on Simpson’s experiences of home in the Pueblo of Santa Clara. This show offers a less didactic and much more experiential presentation of Simpson’s work than the ICA exhibition’s retrospective approach. As she commented of the show, “I am returning to the figure as myself rather than actually creating these figures out of clay—and installation [as a medium] provides that opportunity of projecting oneself into a space and actually experiencing that transformational moment firsthand.” Guided by the introductory text, Dream House invites the visitor to obliquely experience curated spaces connected with Simpson’s personal memories of growth. Visitors need to search for their own personal entry points within these meditative installations. 

Dream House is divided into five consecutive spaces: a dramatic entrance, three enclosed structures with windows, and an open space for meditation and conversation. The exhibition opens as a dark, empty space obliquely lit by two industrial lamps resting on the floor along the right wall. This raking light reveals the unevenness of the floor to emphasize the room’s own history grounded in the industrial space of Philadelphia. Crossing this space, the visitor’s shadow comes into focus on the far wall plastered with the light orange mud associated with Southwestern adobe architecture, as well as Simpson’s figurative sculpture. This combination of shadow and material recalibrates the visitor’s expectations of figuration and place in this exhibition.

Beyond this wall, visitors encounter three standalone buildings. Each structure consists of two interior rooms. One window allows the visitor to peer into the first room, yet not enter. Each interior space is plastered with the same light orange mud from the entrance. Windows are cut into the wall between the interior rooms. Videos of outdoor views of Simpson’s home in New Mexico are projected in this second interior room. The exterior of each structure is fabricated with wood reclaimed from demolished buildings throughout Philadelphia—a detail that a tour guide revealed during my time at the museum. These different windows signal the installation’s relationship to two different places—the artist’s home in Santa Clara Pueblo and the space of the exhibition in Philadelphia. Through the combination of mud plaster and salvaged wood, this first room merges two places that could only coexist in the realm of fantasy. Considering the influence of magical realism on Simpson’s work, I interpret these installations as havens between disjointed spaces meant to conjure memories for the viewer.

Each of the three enclosed rooms approaches a different concept related to home, nourishment, and internal growth. The first proposes the theme of “safety and emotional comfort,” signaled by a pile of screen-printed pillows along the right wall and an interior panoramic window along the left, opening onto a video of a mesa in New Mexico. Between these, we find a high-relief quilt of a nude maternal figure whose colors recall the artist’s clay figures at the ICA. Framed by two videos of the artist’s feet walking on dirt and cement, the second room presents a space to contemplate “the work of mental and spiritual growth.” An empty chair and clay mug rest next to a table under the gaze of three masks placed around the room, suggesting the guidance of extra-human relations, since they build on earlier Ancestor works exhibited in 2016. Natural light pours into the third room, illuminating shelves of ceramics, a geometric rug, and a table with three stools. Designed for convening, this space reflects ideas of “abundance and fullness.” These three rooms approach Simpson’s central theme of relationality from a different angle—with the self, ancestors and land, and others who make up a home.

In the absence of interpretive text for each room, I was especially attuned to conversations taking place around me, and this in itself suggests that the exhibition is a crucial site of relationality among visitors. Indeed, Simpson provides an incubation space for such dialogue as the final element of the exhibition: a platform with a wooden table and pillows under a canopy of pastel-colored paper bowls marked with a black cross. Simpson printed cards intended to guide personal and communal interpretation, writing in the instructions: “There is so much information here. Make space for it.” For me, the exhibition’s lack of didactic materials signaled an intentional opacity. Only guided by the introductory wall text and this card-based meditation at the end, I had to rely on my own personal associations and resonances. Instead of curatorial interpretation to subtly direct the viewer, Dream House asks time, reflection, and engagement of its viewers.

In preparation for her residency at the Fabric Workshop in May 2020, Simpson presented a “Code of Ethics,” in which she expressed, “Extraction of place from our identity often leads us astray, and we forget the how and the why.” Each exhibition reviewed here considers the vibrant relationship between place and identity through different media. In Legacies, we are drawn in by Simpson’s sculpture to contemplate histories of extraction and recover a sense of place. In Dream House, place catalyzes reflection on the artist’s identity and history as well as how place shapes human and extrahuman relations. While Legacies provides insight into the longer arc of Simpson’s artistic career as a retrospective, Dream House is designed to meet the visitor in our current reparative moment, over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. In this way, Dream House prioritizes personal reflection and reorientation by prompting visitors to assess the status of our own relations here and now. When these exhibitions are read together, Simpson’s call to invest in better relationships with our selves, one another, and the earth come into focus.

Christine Garnier
Postdoctoral Fellow, USC Society of Fellows in the Humanities