Charles Simonds

CaixaForum Barcelona

Curated by the director of the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Daniel Abadie, this marvelous retrospective included over twenty years of Charles Simonds’ work. His imaginary Little People civilization is significant for its architectural nostalgia, its “earthiness,” and its psychoarchaeological import—the feeling it creates of being the excavation site of an archaic city located in some desert of the mind. The psychological dimension of his work has become explicit in the gargoylelike heads and allegorical grotteschi (straight out of the grotto of the unconscious) that he began producing in the ’90s.

Simonds admits to being inspired by the New Mexican landscape, the Indian architecture he saw there, and above all the land itself—a malleable clay that he has molded, smeared, and even bathed in as part of a ceremony of rebirth derived from the Shalako dance of the Zunis which Simonds attended many times between 1969 and 1983. His work has been celebrated for its ecological significance and its “Abstract Expressionism.” His structures often twist and turn with gestural perversity, and his “studies” of pure terrain seem like petrified gestures, yet they remain more fluid than the stylized Chinese landscapes from which they are sometimes derived. The ritual character of his works suggests a lost world he seems to wish to restore.

For me, the important thing about Simonds’ works are their miniature character, their fusion of architecture, sculpture, and painting, and the eccentricity of his uninhabited spaces. Indeed, the sense of abandonment—compounded by the apparent impermanence of his structures, many of which are ruins—is pervasive. They recall those “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” scenarios where the coffee is still hot on the stove, but there’s nobody at home, and it’s not clear anyone ever was. Simonds’ art, like Anselm Kiefer’s, is about absence, loss, emptiness, but unlike Kiefer there is no sense of mourning, but, rather, of a fait accompli. Thus, for all the energy evident in many of these pieces, there is an accompanying sense of fatalism.

Perhaps that mood is secondary to the sheer dexterity, ironic grandeur, and theatricality of the pieces—to the contradiction between a fixed structure and free-form earth, to the sense of omnipotence this stage-set world of missing Lilliputians produces in the viewer. Strange as it may seem, Simonds has given us a kind of world theater that, like that of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, reflects our own decadent fascination with the historically and emotionally primitive, our desire to play God, and our propensity for eschatological pessimism.

Donald Kuspit