Chicago

Charles Simonds

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

The 12-part sequence Circles and Towers Growing, 1978, previously shown only in Germany, dominated this exhibition, which also included the model Floating Cities, 1978, and the very recent three-part sequence House Plants, 1981, as well as photographs of public projects and films of private Mythologies. It was thus the most comprehensive representation of the artist’s work to date in the United States. In addition, the self-contained permanent pieces in the exhibition were seen as emblematic of some three hundred miniature dwellings that Simonds has built all over the world, and especially in the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, since the early ’70s.

In both temporary and permanent pieces, as if in chapters of a narrative, Simonds investigates “evolution and psychological implications between body and earth, house and home, building and growing—from the behavior of termites to human social systems . . . ,” as he is quoted in the catalogue. In Circles and Towers Growing he expands upon his central equation of body/dwelling/landscape to “show the evolution of a landscape and an architecture in [his] imaginary universe . . . the same place at successive moments of time.” While the street dwellings nestle in the cracks, crevices, or windowsills of buildings, these 12 portable pieces, measuring 30-by-30-inches with varying heights, stand on pedestals. Their presentation is thus shifted from a vertical to a horizontal plane, and the viewer is now required to peer down at the work. Installed at measured intervals in a gallery whose soft lights seem like sunsets, complementing the earth tones of the sculpture (in contrast to the brooding nocturnal fantasies of Anne and Patrick Poirier), the series originates with a parched, cracked plain; then breasts and pursed lips swell from the earth. Next come a variety of ritual buildings in various stages of construction and decay, and finally dusty surfaces with scattered brick ruins. These most barren final moments of Simonds’ imaginary civilizations are paradoxically the most suggestive, poignant, and formally successful.

In House Plants Simonds wittily and perversely explores “the functional analogies between body, plants and the built.” “Ground Bud,” the first stage, has thick tonguelike petals; a phallus growing from the petals is covered by bricks in “Stone Sprout;” in the final freeze the phallus becomes a tower, and the petals shrivel up and draw back from culture’s revenge on nature. Yet the literal sexuality of these tabletop eruptions is not so powerful as the gaping hole-in-the-wall city that is one part of a 44-foot-long permanent installation made for the stripped-brick wall in the museum’s basement café. In this landscape Simonds constructed dwellings, ritual sites, and quarries, all linked by narrow pathways meandering across and penetrating the wall. Here we have archaeological intertextuality, or artificial over real archaeology: the furrowed wall that reveals the deep-throated opening in which the tiny city huddles is actually part of a brick oven from the days when the building that now houses the museum was a bakery. This palimpsest installation recalls Mesa Verde and Mycenae, but its culmination is the giant maw threatening to swallow the dwellings in one spasm or convulsion of desire. Viewed face to face it draws the observer into its cavern to search out its source, its sexual presence.

The genesis for Simonds’ ritualistic dwellings is documented in the photographic series from 1970 entitled Birth. Simonds staged a ritual birth from Mother Earth, perhaps attempting to reject civilization and its discontents. In these small but convincing pictures, Simonds emerges dripping like a faun or goat-man from the primordial clay. In other rituals, from the filmed Mythologies, he uses the clay to form buildings on his body, literally enacting the connection between body and dwelling. These photographs and films seem more magical than the three-dimensional clay sculptures here, perhaps because they provide a distance, exist as records of reality. The viewer feels witness to a private ritual at a remove from Simonds’ absorption.

Wrenched from specific architectural situations and from direct historical sources, the self-contained portable emblems are art objects whose small scale and modest material belie their origins in a giant imagination, as well as the equally imaginative response required from the audience. In his catalogue essay John Hallmark Neff, curator of the exhibition, states that “everything depends upon our willingness to open up ourselves and mentally engage the vistas, bits and pieces constructed by the artist. Imagination is simply the key to participation.” Imagination on the part of the audience is of course fundamental to a great many works of art, and is even more necessary when confronting less accessible abstract work than before the seductive fantasies here. But Neff’s plea for imaginative participation raises questions of where the vitality of the work resides: is it in the actual quasi-archaeological vessels that the artist presents, or in the opportunity given the viewer to indulge in anthropological fantasies? In this context, the vitality of the work is shifted from the art to the departed presence of the Little People—Simonds’ imaginary builders whose history is traced in the cycle of Circles and Towers Growing and in his text Three Peoples. This poetic pseudo-anthropological record of the Little People’s practices and rituals is a valid artistic fantasy, but it leaves us with little to imagine. There seems to be too much attention to the details of construction, of artifice. Despite the evidence of the pleasures of obsessive fabrication, one is left with a feeling of closure, of exactitude. The only questions remaining in this very literary work are why the Little People came to the museum and why they left.

There remains the potential of the viewer’s own imagination. Working in the street, often surrounded by his audience, Simonds provided occasion for a discourse animated by his presence as maker; in the museum this theatrical situation is transformed into one based on the viewer’s recollections, or fantasy inventions. The 12 tabletops become tabulae rasae upon which the museum audience can heap subjective interpretation, imagination over anthropological association, and verbal constructions which replicate the obsessively painstaking artistic building process. Similarly, in the catalogue texts, Simonds’ miniature sculptures are called upon to balance an excessive load of interpretive narrative drawn from a disparate collection of sources including Mircea Eliade, C.G. Jung, and Norbert Weiner, among others.

But in the museum context Simonds’ art loses its particularity, its fresh edge, in a way that the street pieces rarely did. The move to the museum and its audience need not be a negative transplantation, but it does alter the conditions of viewing. If Simonds’ art does not completely relinquish its social role in the museum, its possibilities still become restricted and comparable to the possibilities for imaginative play operative in dollhouses, or, more specifically, in the dioramas of natural-history museums. But dioramas are didactic models dramatically establishing a context for artifacts from other civilizations or eras. In Simonds’ constructions, the artifact is the art. As with other objects collected in the museum, Simonds’ work here is like freeze-dried culture, subject to the same esthetic scrutiny and principles of conservation.

On the street the astonishingly perfect dwellings required little commentary, and the artist, with his bag of bricks, was there to field questions while creating the work. On the street Simonds intervened in real life, and the public understood, loved, and destroyed the art as part of its cycle. A spark occurred each time Simonds implanted a bit of personal poetry and private myth in the side of 20th century architecture. The pleasure of accidental discovery and the fragility of street existence provided a charged and even political counterpoint to the realities of contemporary urban life and architecture.

The obvious appeal exerted by Simonds’ ruins is universal and romantic, but this emblem is burdened with metaphor, allusion, and allegory. Situating the ruin in another ruin—the museum—compounds the problem. In 19th century art and literature, the ruin prefigured devastation. Simonds’ work has been denied its predictive function by urban development whose hegemony encompasses both the past and the future. It is sadly ironic that during the eight-week period of Simonds’ exhibition the handsome Underwriter’s Laboratories Building one block south of the MCA (designed in 1905 during Chicago’s golden age of architecture, by Argyle Robinson with later additions by Richard E. Schmidt) was being demolished brick by brick.

Judith Russi Kirshner