What Happened When Laurie Simmons’s Dolls Came to Life

Artsy Editorial
Oct 19, 2017 2:22PM

For over four decades, Laurie Simmons has explored gender, sexuality, and modern life through photography. Along the way, her artistic journey has had plenty of twists and turns.

“How do you get back into your work after you feel like you’ve completed something that feels really done?” she wonders. “Well, that’s a problem that comes up for most artists. For me, I work in series. Each series is very succinct, each series kind of gives me a clue, or a little nod as to where to go next.”

But when Simmons finished making her first film, a short called The Music of Regret, in 2006, she had no idea where to go next. “I just had no idea,” she says. “The ‘now what?’ lasted an uncomfortably long time.”

In hindsight, it proved to move her career forward. On a trip to Japan with her younger daughter in 2009, Simmons encountered a Japanese “love doll”—a life-sized and highly realistic latex mannequin designed for sex and companionship. Simmons  was intrigued. She began dressing these dolls in various costumes and photographing them posing in her own Connecticut home, creating the images in her now-acclaimed series, “The Love Doll” (2009–11).

It was a breakthrough moment for the artist, who, since the mid-1970s, was known mainly for her narrative photographs of miniature scenes set in post-war dollhouse interiors. “A life-size doll meant that I could move it around my own home and use existing walls, doors, floors, chairs, lamps, clothes, jewelry, and candy,” Simmons says. “That’s why ‘The Love Doll’ was so important to me, because I could leave small worlds behind.”

She found her next inspiration in Japanese animegao kigurumi, a type of cosplay culture in which participants don masks and costumes and walk around in public portraying anime characters. With the transition from working with miniature figurines to human-scale mannequins and, then real, live characters, Simmons felt the urge to make another, longer film.

Her first feature film, My Art (2016), tells the uplifting story of a disenchanted middle-aged artist who, while house-sitting for a friend one summer, befriends two local actors. The experience pushes her practice in a new direction. “The movie was an obsession, something that would have been more painful not to make than to make, even though it was one of the biggest challenges of my life,” she says. “So here I am as an artist, again wondering: ‘What exactly will come next?’”

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019