Santa Fe

Gary Simmons

Lannan Foundation

Taking his 1993 series “Erasure” as a point of departure, Gary Simmons created a monumental yet lyrical suite of site-specific wall drawings. The earlier series—30 works that resembled old-fashioned blackboards with partially erased chalk drawings derived from cartoons ranging from the well-known Dumbo to the little known “Bosko” serials—was a means of marking the “violence done to Black people both in the creation of these images and [in] life.” To achieve this effect, Simmons isolated selected cartoon characters and reduced the images until they became indices of visual stereotypes: a frog is all gaping mouth and exaggerated lips framing shiny white teeth; a cannibal, the whites of his eyes enormous, has a bone sticking through his hair. In the current series of wall drawings, the characters are gone and with them the desire to provoke an aggressive, visceral response to the visual politics of race in this country. Instead, Simmons points to the profound uneasiness deep within the cultural unconscious by returning to and reworking artistic and historical traditions.

The blackboard drawings, with their inescapable references to the work of Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly, seek to locate themselves firmly within an art historical lineage, an impression the artist’s working method only serves to heighten. Simmons began this series of wall drawings by making numerous pencil sketches, then larger charcoal ones on vellum. In a more contemporary touch, he scanned the drawings into a computer and adjusted their scale to fit the specifics of the space. After the computer-manipulated drawings were outputted onto transparent sheets of acetate, they were projected onto the wall to serve as cartoons for the finished drawings, a standard practice for large or important works since the Renaissance. Finally, after drafting the images onto the surface, he attacked the drawings, not with erasures but with his bare hand, leaving a trail of prints across the allover surface of the chalk—the only trace of human presence in this series.

What Simmons reveals through his investigation of tradition is a myriad of unconscious tensions. Using an unstable oneiric vocabulary, he reproduces psychic contortions. One work depicts a ballroom with two simultaneous but impossible perspectives, while another shows a ship that instead of floating cascades like swagging fabric. The vast ballroom drawing in particular succeeds in evoking a nightmarish cultural vertigo. At the center of The Ballroom is a huge chandelier made of nooses and smudged in such a way that it seems to be twisting. On either side, two sweeping staircases, leading up to heavily curtained windows framed by Doric columns, form a semicircle. Reflected on the ballroom floor from an entirely different perspective, the curtained windows are tremendously foreshortened so that they become hideously stretched, the columns literally beheaded, while the naturalized invisibility of the forces that produce these monstrous effects is evoked by the absence of the noose-knotted chandelier’s reflection.

Andrew Perchuk