The ‘Haunting’ of Gary Simmons

Gary Simmons, a man who is known for using chalk and paint to create ghostly trails of images that seem to disappear before his eyes, has recently become a major figure in the art world.

A conceptual artist known for examining how racial ideas spread, Simmons is his largest and most comprehensive work. retrospective Opened June 13th and is currently on at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago show Presented new work at Hauser & Wills in London.

“Seeing so much of your work can have a strange effect. It can be numbing,” he says, enthusing about the MCA show in the smaller of the two studios here. Simmons, 59, said.

At the MCA, Gary Simmons: Public Enemy, a collection of 70 works, will be on display until October 1, after which it will travel to co-organizers, the Perez Museum of Art in Miami.

The sharp messages contained in Simmons’ work, combined with his activities in various media, are influential. “His example was very powerful for young artists,” said Thelma Golden, director of Harlem’s Studio Museum and a major supporter of Simmons’ career.

He gained early notoriety with “Wall of Eyes,” one of the “murals” depicting ghostly cartoon eyes at the famous and confrontational 1993 Biennale at the Whitney Museum of American Art, co-curated by Golden. collected.

This helped prove what Simmons calls a “business card”-like gesture, a smear of white strike-through.

His studio had newer of these on hand. It was a painting featuring a ghostly image of Bosco, a cartoon character introduced in the 1920s and widely perceived to be a racial caricature. This smiling figure appears many times in Simmons’ work, as well as in other cartoons (a remnant of his childhood television habits).

“As an artist, you develop a visual language,” says Simmons. “That’s the foundation of my language, my sense of disappearance and ghosts. It’s ghosts.”

This motif forces the audience to engage with the image before it threatens to fade away. “Audiences have to fill those gaps,” says Simmons.

Golden said the motif has lasting power. “It’s an artistic gesture, but it’s also an intellectual gesture,” she said. “The question is how history is erased. He makes it easier to read.”

“His work is about collective memory: what we forget and why we forget,” said Rene Morales, MCA’s chief curator. He organized the show with the museum’s assistant curator, Jadin Collingwood.

Famously embodied by Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man, the idea of ​​desegregation has inspired many other visual artists, including: Titus CafferIt has permeated exhibitions such as “By Yesterday We Could Have Flew: Afrofuturist Era Room”was performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and influenced contemporary playwrights such as James Ijames.

Simmons has recreated four pieces on the wall (three in paint and one in chalk) for the MCA show. The remake process, which Simmons took in mid-May in Chicago, was an added challenge given that he had just recovered from his first COVID-19 infection.

“It’s cruel,” he said of the process. His two of them are 40 feet long. “When he does four of these, it’s training.” He had his production manager help him create the drawings and have his team prepare the surface. If it’s too bumpy, you might cut your hand with the chalk.

Working directly on the wall gave Simmons a new meaning.

“I love that I have to paint when the show is over,” he said. “They are embedded in the history of architecture and space. They involved and prosecuted museums.”

The mere fact of his drawing skills impresses his friends and art colleagues Glen Lygonis one of the black artists of his generation that Golden has described as “redefining the space of the contemporary art world.”

As Lygon puts it, “He can actually paint, but I can’t. It’s one of the ways we’ve expanded the notion of what conceptual art is.”

Directed by Franklin Sillmans Perez Museum A longtime friend of Simmons said the mural “is a conceptual bridge between graffiti art and the tradition of mural painting, suitable for galleries and museums.”

Simmons’ ability to move between painting and elaborate sculpture, like a boxing ring in the MCA show “Step Into the Arena” (1994), is what Silmans calls him. This is one of the reasons why I called him “a true poet of material”. “

Moving the show to Perez, Florida means the state of Perez, Florida, which teaches certain books in public schools and the AP course in African American Studies for the Commission on Colleges in law schools. Simmons felt it was appropriate, given the move to ban it.

“It’s the perfect moment for a show like this to happen,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that some of the issues I dealt with 30 years ago are just as fresh and relevant today.”

References to education and school have long been interspersed in his work, as in the MCA show’s first production, 1989’s “Big Dance,” with a ku It was a tall white hooded sculpture reminiscent of the Crux Klan. .

“I wanted to bring my understanding of politics and education into a cool minimalist and conceptualist aesthetic and smash them together,” Simmons said. “The murals and early sculptures like The Big Dance came out of it.”

Simmons is comfortable with characterizing himself.

“My work oscillates between abstraction and expression,” he said. “It’s a progression from the early works to the present.”

The only topic Simmons initially hesitated to discuss was his childhood, first in Queens and then in Suffern, the Rockland County, New York town where he lived during his high school years. (He considers himself a New Yorker and currently lives in Los Angeles with his artist wife, Ellen Ross, and her daughter.)

“I don’t usually talk openly,” he said of his upbringing. “It wasn’t my favorite time.”

His father was a Barbados-born printer for fine art photographers, and his mother, from Saint Christopher, held various jobs, including secretarial work.

“I got to meet Ansel Adams and Garry Winogrand,” Simmons said of his father’s famous colleague. “They were kind old people who would talk to my father.”

Music has had a profound effect on Simmons since the beginning, as evidenced by the reference to hip-hop group Public Enemy in the title of the MCA show. As a child, Simmons would draw and redraw album covers.

“Music has always been a big thing for me as a first-generation West Indian,” Simmons said. “My father was quite temperamental, so when he started throwing tantrums, his sister and I would put on Johnny Nash and Calypso music. Why was he mad at us? I forgot.”

Moving to Suffern was a shock. “There was a lot of friction and a lot of racial issues,” he said at the end. “I hated every minute of being there.”

Something as simple as dating was a minefield. “I fall in love [white] The girl and her parents wouldn’t let her go to the dance with me because of who I was or what I looked like,” Simmons said. “It was very painful.”

Part of the conceptual tradition calls for a certain distance between the creator and the art, which is why he has refrained from speaking on the subject. However, he added that his “miserable” time at school “definitely affected my work.”

Simmons was happier attending the Visual Arts School in Manhattan. After graduating, he earned his MFA at his CalArts in the Los Angeles area. Key mentors came from his two older black artists, Jack Witten of SVA and Charles Gaines of California Arts.

Both Witten, who died in 2017, and Gaines, who still makes art, were slow to gain recognition in the art world.

“It opened doors for us that they didn’t have,” Simmons said.

1991’s “Pollywanna” featured a live parrot on the lectern, but the Los Angeles dealer couldn’t afford to ship the backboard that was part of the piece, so Simmons painted directly onto the wall behind the bird. I drew

“She would flap her wings at times,” Simmons recalled. “The white feathers created a sort of acid trail against this matte black background, and I thought, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.'”

Simmons’ career took off in New York with the 1992 project “Garden of Hate” directed by Golden at Whitney’s former Philip Morris branch where she worked at the museum.

He planted a garden in the shape of the crest of the KKK cross, with red and white azaleas, centered around a flagpole without a flag.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Simmons said. “I learned along the way and was fascinated to do it. I was a sassy, ​​ambitious kid.”

Furthermore, “Thelma took a huge risk on me. She let a lot of unproven artists do really ambitious things.”

Simmons joined the gallery Metro Pictures the following year, where he remained for nearly 30 years. Gallery closed in 2021.

“We were some of the first black artists to represent us in the gallery at the time,” Lygon said of the early ’90s. “It was a community, but we had to figure it out as we went along.”

The latest accomplishment in Simmons’ move to Hauser & Wills is six pieces for the London show This Must Be the Place.

The work includes two bronze statues of crows, which Simmons describes as the Jim Crow laws of the South, Hitchcock’s “Birds,” and the ravens that once stood in for black characters in cartoons. said to refer to.

In the painting, Simmons said “How Soon Is Now” represents a fresh direction. It reverses his usual technique of painting on a black background, in this case placing faded black stars on a background containing areas of pale pink and blue.

Shooting stars, with their ephemeral nature and wish-fulfilling potential, have long been part of his work, but color has not.

Simmons said it was “very uncomfortable” working on the task. But he added that he wanted that feeling at this stage in his career.

“I still have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button