"Madness strips things down to their core. It takes everything and in exchange offers only more madness, and the occasional ability to see things that are not there." So begins Simonutti's artist statement for her last exhibition. The title of the exhibition "8 rooms, 7 mirrors, 6 clocks, 2 minds & 199 panes of glass" refers to the house that Simonutti had become a virtual recluse in, following her descent into "madness" that began, by her reckoning on the 28th March 2006. The house that, at the time of this exhibition, she had inhabited for three and two thirds years where "the restoration had become recreation" but had also "become my whole world; backdrop, setting, refuge and ... eventually my collaborator ". Lauren Simonutti decided she "..would document her ascension from madness to as much a level of sanity for one of my compositions could hope for, or I could leave a document of it all in the case I should fail".
She Left a Light on but They Were Never Coming Back (2007) Image courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago
Using only Large Format cameras Simonutti shot the majority of her wondrously staged images in a space 3 feet by 5 feet by 8 feet, where her workflow - stage a shot, shoot it, develop the shot then print it - meant that there was a continual need to re-dress the "shooting room"; working at roughly one shot a day, there was a continual need to redecorate. The majority of the manipulation was done in the darkroom, by means of selective toning and bleaching and a little was done in camera. Admitting that the 8 X 10 camera she made herself was a "little askew" Simonutti had largely stopped using an enlarger and was only making contact prints with the use of a single 100 watt bulb. The house had, as the title of the exhibition suggests, eight clocks, though, as they all told different times she never used a clock to tell the time. In the darkroom, in order to pace a process she would play a piece of music - a piece by Bowie for one process, a piece by Tom Waits for another; different processes - different pieces. The more I think about that the more I think what a great idea it is. Simonutti worked in series' and in order to put closure on those sets of work she would turn a series into a book - mostly hand made and, by limitation of that process the books are mostly sold out.
Simonutti declares that very few of her compositions are self portraits, that she found the need for a body in the frame she would offer herself as the model to fulfil that role. It is hard to imagine that these extremely powerful images, filled as they are with narrative content, are not, at least, auto biographical. Simonutti refused to deny her madness as she says "I didn't do anything wrong, it is something you are born with!" And so it is the human story behind these images that are, I think, some of the most moving images I have ever encountered. The processes by which she made these images are testament to the pure, honest and raw artistic drive, coupled with the sure knowledge of her mental condition. The image right "She Left a Light on but They Were Never Coming Back" has such a tragic narrative, that I cannot imagine the pain needed to have been suffered in order to pour it out. I can't begin to tell the story on her behalf and the artist talk here allows Simonutti to describe in heart-braking clarity that story.
I would like to thank Catherine from the Catherine Edelman Gallery who gave me carte blanche on the use of Lauren's work, but I found it difficult to decide what to include. The artist's talk above provides a wonderful description in her own words and so I thought I would leave it there. But I found a statement that Lauren made which I keep thinking about in regard to her illness. This wonderful photographer had decided that her reference for her ascension from the abyss that she decided to climb out of, could only be calibrated by her compositions which would be captured and recorded by her photography, as if the bounding of her condition could only be marked by her own creation of a fixed image providing the proof.
Catherine Edelman Gallery is here
An interesting interview in Lensculture is here
And a very good piece by Susan Burnstine, who had featured Lauren Simonutti in last months Black and White magazine is here