Hauser & Wirth
February 22 – May 22, 2022
In his first exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, Gary Simmons fills the gallery with a video, small drawings, large paintings, expansive wall drawings, as well as a new sculptural installation. Titled Remembering Tomorrow, the exhibition looks both forward and back. Simmons often begins by watching old films and researching historical cartoon characters infused with racial biases ranging from the crows in Disney‘s Dumbo (1941) to the Looney Tunes characters Bosko and Honey (1930s). He transforms these depictions into large-scale characters presented as thick white or black lines that are then partially blurred or smudged. Simmons has been making gestural “erasure” drawings for many years and the implications of wiping away resonate even more now than when he began. While Simmons acknowledges that he cannot completely erase and remove these types of stereotypical depictions and all cultural references to them, he does want to call attention to their place in history and the climate that precipitated such rampant and overt racism.
Simmons has a knack for orchestrating viewers’ experiences and here, while immersing them in a room of wall drawings, he carefully takes them on a journey. As the viewer casts their eyes from the enigmatic 88 Fingers Fats (all wall drawings 2022), a depiction of Fats Waller furiously playing the piano, to Lindy Hop, two larger than life-size cartoony dancers, they also regard the magnificent Star Chaser, a wall drawing of shooting stars. The last image seen as they leave the room is the tragic Lynch Frog, a not so subtle reminder of the history of lynching in the United States.
The exhibition also includes ten large-scale paintings that feature different iterations of partially erased cartoon characters against textured backgrounds, some mostly black or gray, others white with streaks of color. All are made from a mix of oil paint and cold wax applied with brushes and palette knives.These images have a sense of urgency and motion that comes from Simmons’ hand work— gesturally erasing, smudging and remaking the lines. Honey Typer (2021) depicts the bow-wearing “Honey” character pecking away at an old fashioned typewriter. In Splish Splash (2021), the figure exults in a bath, water droplets emanating from his torso, whereas in Rogue Wave (2021), “Bosko” struggles to control the steering wheel of a boat about to be hit with a crashing wave. Simmons de-contextualizes these characters, wiping away their original backgrounds but still alluding to the fraught history of their origins.
Simmons’ images appear like ghosts— tied to a past, yet very much in the present. He cites films and cartoons as an influence, as well as the canon of art history, especially minimalism and conceptualism. He investigates the ways “blacks” were depicted and how cartoons exaggerated these representations. His work does not necessarily right these wrongs, but calls attention to them. His process is as much about education as depiction and Simmons wants his viewers to understand how the past has influenced the present and how dissecting the past might change the future. He does not want to completely erase this history.
In an interview in Flaunt (2/17/22), he states, “What I am trying to do is erase a stereotype, but it’s sort of futile because as much as I try to erase it, there is always going to be traces of it left behind, and that is where the work sits.”
Throughout his thirty-year career, Simmons has explored themes of race and identity politics, as well as the role of education. In Remembering Tomorrow, he also returns to this theme through the compelling sculptural installation, You Can Paint Over Me But I’ll Still Be Here, (2021). Replicating a school cafeteria at the end of the day, Simmons has concocted a space where the walls are painted half beige (at the top) and half institutional green (at the bottom). Within this faux lunch room, he situates five folding tables with accompanying attached stools painted a bright cyan. Four of the tables are folded up in the center to become vertical, alluding to minimalist forms. The twelve stools (six on each side of the tables) extend perpendicularly and function as shelves onto which Simmons places cast resin black birds based on the crows from the original Dumbo cartoon.
Drawn on and etched into the tabletops are numerous spirograph-like drawings, adolescent doodles and handwritten notes that reference lunchroom conversations that unfold over time, as well as names of pop music bands, anarchist symbols and even references to Simmons’ other works. While devoid of people, the piece invokes memories of crowded cafeterias, lunchroom brawls and school cliques. It simultaneously points out racist tendencies still prevalent in contemporary and popular culture.
You Can Paint Over Me But I’ll Still Be Here joins early works, including Pollywanna (1991) and Erasure Chair (1989) that looked at how and what children learn. While artists do their own thing, they are still products of their upbringing and their environment. Simmons’ works are reminders of the role of education and popular culture in forming societal norms. He calls attention to the ways people learn and think, asking audiences to be mindful of the mistakes of the past and to chart out a more equal and less biased future.
Cover image: Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark, 2014/ongoing, 11 hand-made speakers, scrapped wood, paint, and electrical components, Dimensions variable; all photos by Jeff McLane; all images copyright by Gary Simmons and courtesy of Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles