Magazine article Artforum International

Gary Simmons

Magazine article Artforum International

Gary Simmons

Article excerpt

With the willful impermanence of their blurred chalk marks, Gary Simmons's monumental "erasure" drawings position themselves somewhere between black and white. His bravura subtractions are perplexing expressions of the politics of difference and the paradox of memory, incorporating what he has called "mark-making as well as a literal 'unmark'-making": He executes drawings in white chalk on panels and walls that have been coated with slate paint or schoolroom blackboards on wheels and then smudges the images with his hands, partially wiping them nut. Meaning resides in the tension between what is drawn and the act of erasing, a kind of representation in reverse. Sensitive to the resonant history of erasure as practiced by artists from Rauschenberg and Twombly to Kentridge, Simmons invests this wrenching process with a performarive aspect and brings it to the forefront of his project.

In the past Simmons has applied the formal and conceptual strategy of erasure to subject matter derived from sources in popular culture, where an insidious, instructional racist subtext often lurks. In the late '80s he began making chalk-on-blackboard drawings of Disney crows and cartoon bug eyes along with sculptures, such as a row of Ku Klux Klan robes in miniature. Like Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall, Simmons has invoked the atmospherics of history, but unlike them he has concentrated on locations restricted to the privileged. Several series of drawings from the early '90s imply powerful narratives through vacant, grand architecture (ghostly ballrooms, abandoned gazebos, echoing staircases) and regal fixtures (thrones, chandeliers). These works gave rise to his first large-scale site-specific wall drawings in 1995.

The projects on view in this first museum survey are not limited to identity politics and ghosts. The Srudio Museum in Harlem's Thelma Golden (working with Elizabeth Smith, the MCA's chief curator) chose to focus on Simmons's more recent erasure drawings as well as installations, skywriting projects, and paintings from the past seven years. Many of the drawings depict seemingly innocent, even romantic subjects: evergreens, trains, shooting stars. But what political theorist Iris Marion Young terms the impossibility of an "unsituated group-neutral point of view" persists. Though any normative label makes him wary--whether stemming from African American cultural legacies, resistance to the art world's demand for slickness and spectacle, or the rhetoric of "post-black" (Golden's term, meant to unpack the notion of race as a cultural burden, inevitably functions as a normative label itself)--Simmons insists that race consciousness is embedded in his representations no matter how much he might tone it down.

Simmons's erasures generate fluvial swirls, lacy residues of chance that conjure waves, feathers, and vapor. Anxious to sleuth out images that have been intentionally obscured, viewers must resort to titles for clues then reenact Simmons's process in reverse. In 1996, preoccupied with the notion of abandonment that had informed his wall drawings, Simmons traveled to Death Valley to film the skywriting project Desert Blizzard. The result was projected on a wall here: The white trail of a tiny plane inscribes a slow storm of asterisk-shaped snowflakes, one by one, each evaporating when the next begins, in a Sisyphean circuit of visibility and invisibility. …

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