New York

Charles Simonds

Artists Space and 112 Greene Street

Charles Simonds occupies the sweet and ethical position of giving his art away. For years now he has built tiny clay brick dwellings in the predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side to accommodate a migratory race of little people. Simonds’s mythopoesis is immediately accessible. Introverted kids frequently involve themselves in a world of wee folk, and the idea has generated a lot of children’s literature: William Donahey’s Teenie Weenies, for example, and Mary Norton’s Borrowers. (In The Borrowers Aloft, Norton’s heroes find a home in a miniature city built by a kindly old man.) But Simonds’s efforts are also a small-scale mimic of the earth workers’s moves out of the studio to build in the vast deserts out west. Simonds’s dwellings, built with a museological precision, are based on Indian pueblo architecture, particularly the centuries-abandoned cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colorado. Like this unknown race, which is itself mythologized in Indian and archeological lore, Simonds tends to choose sites high off the ground. Ramps and paths of twig bits link the different structures built on undulating surfaces of red clay.

Simonds’s films Birth, Landscaping, and Landscape-Body-Dwelling (thoroughly discussed in Artforum, February, 1974, and Art-Rite, No. 6) are the scripture wherein he illustrates his relationship to mother earth and his role as god to his little folk. These were shown with two documentaries of the artist at work in the city, films which rhetorically underscore his relationship to Lower East Side neighborhood street life through transferred video verité. Simonds’s art-political outreach was accomplished by slipping miniature relics of a pre-Columbian civilization into a Spanish-speaking community. His dwellings provide a model of a civilization divorced from its context and remarried to another, while at the same time they stamp the community with an imaginary underlife. In a sense, this model is contingent on the works not being destroyed, although as Art-Rite wrote, “Vandalism removes his work to the realm of oral myth.”

Simonds has built an art program in terms of romantic archeological mythology and social utility that, to a greater extent than Smithson’s, resists the art context he is attempting to shove it into. With the films he showed two constructions, Park Model-Fantasy and People Who Live in a Circle, works that sat uneasily under plastic bubbles on clean white pedestals. Simonds also built a dwelling on the window ledge of a storefront gallery down the street. It’s bisected by the glass so that half of it is preserved inside the gallery and half of it is outside. In about two weeks that part had been destroyed. Different from a dwelling (the little folk would have to tunnel under the windowpane to use it), the work is more a meditation on the equivocal position in which the artist finds himself. Unlike Smithson, Simonds is getting plenty of chances to build. He has completed a hutch and a bunch of rock mounds in Artpark near Buffalo, and he’s working on a city park here. He can’t monumentalize his smaller works, so he badly needs to find a formal vocabulary for large scale.

Alan Moore