The allure that draws passersby toward a junk shop window likewise draws us to Arthur Simms’s clunky sculptures of discarded objects entangled in networks of knotted hemp rope. These works keenly anticipate a taste for eclectic material culture. We delve into the sculptures’ obscure inventories of found objects to find, among countless other things, a license plate, a hub cap, and a tin cup, as well as carriages, cheap roofing material, and numerous wheels and tires, all mingling in cluttered, catch-all fishnets.
A Swiss cheese monolith burdens the gallery’s rear with what appears to be menacingly poor balance coupled with a threaded metal bolt roughly a foot in length that juts out from the sculpture’s interior. Floating on some ill-suited wheels no bigger than a shopping cart’s, its precarious girth seems under a spell of restive inertia. Another sculpture, this one secured to the gallery wall, takes a more dogged pursuit of the iconic. A sun-shaped web of rope sits atop a wood post. Extending from points along the perimeter are rusty butcher’s cleavers and knife blades. Recalling Rauschenberg, a small group of stones are tied to the bottom and hang just below the work’s lower edge. The form reverberates, first as a bristly weed, then a gunnysack hung on an attendant walking stick, and culminating with an evocation of a choleric Vishnu. Distilled from the cart culture of Simms’ native Jamaica, these and the remaining rope works begin to feel like a nomadic caravan stocked with dilapidated wares whose owner is poised to trek when the going gets tough.
But the sculptures also feel tragic, clenching obsessively to the dubious satisfactions of ownership; they try to fend us off, brandishing an assortment of impromptu defenses. The sculptures’ compulsion resounds so feverishly, it nearly mutes the artist’s works on paper. Again favoring iconic presentation, Simms makes drawings out of photocopied images of Baroque (mostly Caravaggio) paintings, surrounding them with buttons, bits of the artist’s hair, and annotated book pages given to him by a writer friend, all framed by sewn aluminum foil or abstract shapes drawn on paper in charcoal and graphite. The drawings are short on poetry, though by sober reproduction and reference to on-the-spot notes they allude to a common sensitivity. What he no doubt noticed was Caravaggio’s knack for capturing an authentic humanity whether depicting a saint or a pilgrim or a lowly street urchin. The desire to hold and behold an object tinged with the gravitas of human pathos seems to be the most continuous thread running through Simms’s work.
Though it’s hard to deny that the rope sculptures form Simms’s commanding leitmotif, a wood and pebble assemblage entitled “Wheel” located at the center of the gallery trumps its neighbors with melancholic grace. From two piles of small objects grow tree branches periodically bound with twine. The branches converge into one, and it terminates at bicycle-wheel roots that suggest an uprooted tree. Far from indulgent, the function of “Wheel” is relinquishment. Like a slender, resonant shadow lingering in Caravaggio’s tour-de-force rendition of a broken Mary Magdalene, it seems to consign to the earth those worldly objects once so eagerly hoarded.