It’s all in the eyes. The exhibition Laurie Simmons: How We See at the Jewish Museum, on view through August 16, features large-format glamour shots of professional models. With careful lighting and glowing color background, these are clearly staged representations of beautiful young women, just as you might see in a magazine advertisement, but larger. These headshots tower over the viewer at 70 inches high, adding to the impact when you gradually realize that the eyes are a little…off. It’s disturbing. As I stood there, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why the eyes were strangely textured for at least two minutes. Then a lightbulb went off: the eyes of the model were shut and the lid painted to resemble an eye.
Simmons describes being interested in “doll girls,” women who make themselves up to resemble dolls, but that is almost the least interesting of the implications that these visually-impaired subjects have. Given that the staring eyes of the model are blind, the title of the exhibition–“How We See”–takes on new meaning. The seeing party is us, the viewers, rather than the models. This system of gazes exposes the inherent dynamic between the viewer and every work of art. We look at the art, and are presented with the illusion of a person or world that could look back at us.
It also exposes a societal bias to consume women as images, without empowering them with the ability to return the gaze (and upset those power relations). The size of the images gave weight to those readings. Even monumentalized, the seemingly inanimate women remain only larger dolls to be looked at. I found the flashy smiles and glowing backgrounds quickly became monotonous, even boring. While strong individually, the repetition of the still, theatrical images in the exhibition turns the overall effect almost banal. I’m not sure whether this result intentionally mimics the source material of advertisements being evoked or if it is an unfortunate side effect.