How Lena Dunham's Portrait of a Woman Artist Spurred Her Mother to Make Her Own Movie
When Laurie Simmons made her debut as an artist and photographer in the mid-1970s, she and other Pictures Generation artists sought to confront the patriarchal machinery of art making and the presentation of women in media. “When I picked up a camera with a group of other women, I’m not going to say it was a radical act, but we were certainly doing it in some sort of defiance of, or reaction to, a male-dominated world of painting,” she told magazine in 2014.
Now, nearly 40 years later, Simmons is picking up a different kind of camera to assert her vision in another male-dominated space: film.
Last year, the artist released , a feature film which she wrote and directed. It debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring but begins its official theatrical run this weekend, premiering in New York on January 12 and in Los Angeles next Friday, January 19.
The film follows Ellie Shine, a single, 60-something artist and photographer whose life revolves around her work, her job teaching art at Yale, and her aging dog Bing. Shine hasn’t achieved the success of some of her art-world contemporaries—particularly her famous friend Mickey, a Marilyn Minter-type artist (Minter’s work and studio were used for the part) played by Blair Brown. Mickey lends Ellie both a camera and her home in rural New York to live and work in for the summer. Shine relocates to the house, camera in hand, and begins a new body of work, recreating iconic scenes from famous old movies—gender roles reversed—with a handful out-of-work actors she meets in the small upstate town.
For a long time, the idea of being a full-fledged filmmaker was one Simmons never thought possible: “I was always interested in film, like most artists are, I think, but I couldn’t imagine being able to do it myself,” Simmons tells artnet News. “My best friend in high school went off to film school. I always felt wistful and envious of him, but I just thought that I could never do that myself. I felt like that was a place that only guys could go.”
In 2006, with the aid of her future dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, she shot a 40-minute-long musical art film titled —her first real foray into movie-making. But it wasn’t until 2010, when her daughter, Lena Dunham, made the movie that Simmons realized she too could make a feature film. In that movie, Simmons plays the main character’s artist mom, Siri, who, like Simmons in real life, makes photographic tableaux of dolls, small furniture, and other little objects. Shot digitally, with a modest budget, mostly at Simmons’s own house, “ made me think that making a movie was more possible,” she says.
For her own film, Simmons saw an opportunity to show the female artist in a different light. “Lena’s take on a woman artist, the way that she wrote Siri in that movie—I had issues with the veracity of that character,” Simmons says. “How people portray women on screen, and women artists, and artists in general—it’s problematic. Artists on screen are mythologized, caricatured, trivialized; they’re antagonistic, they’re crazy, they’re drunk, they’re over-dramatized. [For ], I wanted to show the quieter, more mundane, job-like parts of being an artist. I wanted to demystify it a little bit.” Simmons followed through on that vision; the film is not a romantic depiction of an artist’s struggle but a somewhat down-to-earth portrayal of what many artist’s lives look like: quiet, quaint.
is also a particular treat for New Yorkers and art-world insiders, with Easter eggs aplenty. The list of cameos is robust, from artists such as Awol Erizku, Genevieve Gaignard, and Erin Desmond—real life Elis who play Simmons’s students at Yale—to Jackie Saccoccio and Marilyn Minter. The film’s opening scene features Simmons’s character meandering through the “America is Hard to See” exhibition at the newly opened Whitney building, where she stands before recognizable works by Glenn Ligon, Nam June Paik, and Carroll Dunham (Simmons’s husband). The last scene sees her standing outside her own solo show at Salon 94 (her real-life gallery).
Lena Dunham appears in the film too, playing an insufferable young art star and former student of Shine’s whose time on-screen is mostly made up of her complaining about the stresses of traveling back and forth between Europe for her installations at “the Biennale” and New York for a gallery show. It’s a cheeky send-up of self-important artists. Simmons’s character, on the other hand, is a much humbler figure.
“Ellie is not a made-up character,” says Simmons. “She’s a composite of so many women I know. She wants more, she wants to push her work, she wants more success, but she is a woman who seems okay with herself. She’s okay not being with a man, she’s okay not using men to get ahead. She lives comfortably in a world of women with power. Making a movie character who’s single, in her 60s, and isn’t the most successful artist on the face of the earth but is still okay with herself—that was very important to me.”
Simmons, of course, is still a working artist, and she will also have two solo shows in New York this spring: one at Salon 94 and the other at Mary Boone. The latter will showcase a rarely seen body of work from the ’90s called “Café of the Inner-Mind,” a timely series of photographs of male ventriloquist dummies thinking lewd thoughts. Simmons says the idea came to her while trying to imagine the inner life and motivations of a man.
Indeed many of the themes in are themes that have coursed throughout Simmons’s entire oeuvre. Yet she’s not surprised by the lack of change around her.
“Some days I wonder, ‘really, has nothing changed?’” says Simmons. “Other days I fear that, in this period of history, we’re actually going backward. But something is breaking open now. The stories that are coming out now about these men are terrifying—that one person could exert so much influence and execute such evil. That can’t happen. That just can’t happen anymore.”
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