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FIGHTING FORWARD



Travis Diehl celebrates the ArtCrush 2022 Honoree Gary Simmons,
whose work renders “history’s hard lines as porous, transitory and futureward”
Gary Simmons paints as if he’s fighting the wall, his two fists against its masonic weight and color. It seems futile. But his work is a prize fight more than a schoolyard scrap—there’s a lot on the line, every time—and so he must prepare his strategy. First, he sources his drawings. He often takes from cartoons of the golden age of American television, when goofy characters like Mickey Mouse, Honey, and Bosko (aka the Talk-Ink Kid) carried the ill tradition of minstrelsy well past its exorcism from live-action. There’s Mickey at the wheel of his steamboat. There’s Honey snarled in a noose. Simmons transfers their outlines in chalk onto a prepared surface of slate dust mixed in oil, like an old-timey blackboard. Or, more recently, he paints them bone black directly on the wall. Finally, the adversary appears in its sinister innocence—flapping know-nothing jaws and lolling eyes, shit-eating grins. Simmons gloves up and attacks the lines: flaring them up into wisps of flame and smoke; side to side, like the paths of bullets; all over, like vibrations.

Race isn’t black and white, but it’s taught that way, from the jiving of children’s cartoons to the white-on-black of a history lesson. Racism, Simmons seems to say, begins at school. Many of his early sculptures formalize the odd dry statement of fact that accompanies this base layer of systemic bigotry.
Take Erasure Chair from 1989, a wooden school desk refinished in black felt strips of chalkboard eraser. It’s tempting to blurt out the answer: Eracism! Wipe it away! Start again! As if the ground would be any less black, the chalk less white-not, to mention that, as anyone who has stayed behind after class can attest, it’s impossible to ever get a blackboard (or whiteboard) to be as clean as new. Simmons smears the lines, but he isn’t making gray-he’s making smeary lines.

Even when the move seems easy, he only makes it look that way. Mr. Klan Man from 1991, a foot-high statue of a Klansman enclosed behind a picket fence, casts the white supremacist in the role of the racist lawn jockey. But the picket-fence pen, the American dream, is also a crib, nurturing the next full-sized hatred. Along the way, they’ll go to school—Six-X, from 1989, one of Simmons’s best-known pieces, comprises a metal rack reminiscent of the schoolroom cubbies hung with six child-size Klan robes. These little Klanspeople are a bit funny, but in a deadly way, much like Philip Guston’s freshly controversial, slapstick Klans-man paintings. Of course, cartoons are meant to be violent, heaving between candied escapism and a sort of elastic conditioning for the brutalities life brings. A new installation by Simmons, You Can Paint Over Me But I’ll Still Be Here (2021), offers an ominous sort of hope. The cafeteria tables are folded up and freshly painted, waiting for the new year-except the graffiti is peering around the paint job, like the hard edge of innocence, while the black-minstrel crows from Disney’s Dumbo(1942) still hulk on the tables’ sides.

Instead of “eracism,” think of Simmons’s update of action painting as an exercise without a winless like Jackson Pollock expressing himself on the barn floor than Vito Acconci boxing his own shadow. He works with tweaks, slips, inversions, but never knockout blows. In Everforward…, a sculpture from 1993, two white boxing gloves hang from their laces. Where it would read “Everlast” in the trademark font, one is embroidered in gold thread with “Everforward,” the other with “Neverback.” Enter the ring, then: Step into the Arena (The Essentialist Trap) from 1994 is a boxing ring, the mat of which is black with feet drawn in white chalk, as if replicating dance steps; pairs of black tap shoes drape over the ropes, like battered combat-ants or sneakers in the city.

In Simmons’s paintings, row houses burn and so does the Hollywood sign. They burn but don’t burn up. What would it look like if there were, so to speak, no final bell—if the class and the fight and the painting and the human race kept going? It might be more like a dance, hosted on a wooden stage in front of an oddball bank of speakers vibrating in the night. In 2014, for the Prospect.3 Biennial in New Orleans, Simmons made such a stage, Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark, from scrap wood from the Treme neighborhood. The city, and that low-lying area of town in particular, still remain ravaged by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina as much as by the uneven gentrification that followed. To design the work—a sort of arena, a conceptual platform—Simmons looked to Lee “Scratch” Perry and the ethos of dancehall, where a lack of high-end instruments and recording gear led to innovative sounds produced with metal gratings and other scraps.

The most important aspect of this piece is that Simmons only built it. He leaves the programming to the hosts of the venues where it appears. The dancers, musicians, and speakers leave their marks on the wood surface, figuratively and literally, then the stage moves on. It’s a tangible symbol of the progression of craft and tradition that underlies an apparently iconoclastic practice. Simmons has said that his goal isn’t to remove signs from circulation, even racist ones—but to make sure they aren’t forgotten. He is not interested in cultural erasure, but in transformation: to render history’s hard lines as porous, transitory and futureward-raw material for those who come next.
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