Profile: Gary Simmons (1964-)

Gary Simmons is an American artist from New York City. Using icons and stereotypes of American popular culture, he creates works that address personal and collective experiences of race and class. He is best known for his “erasure drawings,” in which he draws in white chalk on slate-painted panels or walls, then smudges them with his hands – a technique that renders their imagery ghostly.

 

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Work and exhibitions

Early work

Simmons received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in 1988. He received his MFA from CalArts in 1990 and received both the National Endowment for the Arts Interarts Grant and the Penny McCall Foundation Grant shortly after. Shortly after his graduate studies, Simmons found a studio back home at a former vocational school in Manhattan, New York. His space was empty but for several old-fashioned, wooden, rolling classroom chalkboards, which he began using as canvases in a series of early works about miseducation and conceptions of racial and class identity. Interested in the medium’s ambiguous and impermanent nature, he worked with chalk on boards or on walls painted with chalkboard paint almost exclusively in the 1990s. In these works, he often borrowed imagery from antique cartoons that depicted black caricatures. In a wall drawing called Wall of Eyes, commissioned for the 1993 Whitney Biennial, the black surface of the board is peppered with bodiless cartoon eyes of different sizes.

Erasures series

Simmons’s most well-known body of work is his Erasures series. He started this in the 1990s and continues to do wall paintings in a very similar style. Chalkboards make an ideal medium because it alludes to teaching and learning. He’s repurposed the place where history is taught and uses erasure to redraw the lines of power. He recreates cartoons that depict black caricatures, some clear and some erased into a dreamy blur. These caricatures refer to when the black stereotype in media was a slap-happy, carefree, musical entertainer. The erasing attempts to make the images ethereal and almost ghost-like. The erasing is a form of mark-making in itself. There’s a sweeping movement to it that contrasts with the tight lines of the unmarked cartoon. He’s bringing up America’s dark past to deface it, but he still wants it to be recognized. He has many exhibitions that feature this style. One of his large-scale wall drawings was most recently shown at Metro Pictures Gallery in Midnight Matinee, an exhibition of paintings and drawings which, like the installation Split Personality, depict semi-erased black-on-black drawings of settings from 1970s horror films.

Sculpture and installation

Considering himself primarily a sculptor, Simmons early three-dimensional work incorporated powerfully suggestive symbols of oppression including Ku Klux Klan signs, hoods, and nooses. One work, entitled Duck, Duck Noose (1992) has chairs in a circle with KKK hoods on each one. In the center of the chairs, a noose hangs from the ceiling. In Klan Gate (1992), two brick pillars surround a large cast-iron gate. Atop each pillar stands a stone carved Klan member. In a later work, Big Still (2001), Simmons addresses the state of the poor whites in Appalachia and the South. He recreated a prohibition-era moonshine rig that was used by poor rural Appalachian whites. He’s commenting on the concept of “white trash,” and that their disenfranchised life was similar to the urban black communities. However, the sculpture is large and intimidating, representing the virulent racism of the time.

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