Art In Conversation
Gary Simmons with Natasha Becker
“I dont think that art can provide answers, but it can definitely continue to ask questions.”
Los AngelesHauser & Wirth (LA)
Gary Simmons: Remembering Tomorrow
February 17 – May 22, 2022
I first came to New York City in 2003 and remember seeing the work of Gary Simmons at Metro Pictures. It was a formative experience. There were so many incredible artists exhibiting in the early aughts; it felt special to have been part of that moment. It’s been many years between that moment and seeing Simmons’s newest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles, but the artwork had the same impact, the same mesmerizing immediacy. In the conversation that follows, we discuss the artist’s educational formation, the way collective memory forms around certain images, and the importance of artwork that poses questions.
Natasha Becker (Rail): Let’s start by talking about the point where politics came together with art for you.
Gary Simmons: I went to a school that was very much about minimalism and conceptualism. I studied with some great, fantastic people: Jack Whitten, Joseph Kosuth, Jackie Winsor, Michael Goldberg. They were amazing people who shaped the way that I thought about art and then later on, I went to CalArts with Michael Asher, and kind of mentored with John Baldessari and these kinds of folks. I was very drawn to conceptualism and minimalism, but the one thing that was a common denominator was this very white male kind of art that was being produced. It was very cold. It didn’t speak to me. And so I really wanted to find my voice in that conversation. I wanted something that was a little more personal as I wanted the thoughtfulness and the reduction, but I wanted something that had a voice to it, my voice. That’s where the politics started to come together with art.
Rail: What was that first body of work that you created where you felt you found your voice?
Simmons: I think probably the disinformation chalkboards. I was working, at the time, in an old vocational school that I was helping renovate. I was basically bartering; I would work to construct these studios, and then I would get to use one. There were a lot of the chalkboards and schoolroom furniture and things like that stored in the area that was assigned to me as a studio. So to work on one wall I would have to move these chalkboards back and forth.
How I was taught to make work is that every mark, every gesture, every material has to have a reason to be there. If you use color, it needs to have a purpose, it’s not just random. If you use an object, it has to be charged with some kind of meaning. And so at the time, I was looking for something that spoke to the idea of education and learning and teaching, and at the same time had roots in minimalism. I was aware of Joseph Beuys’s work, and how all his materials had this other meaning. The fat references the story he was telling about going down in no man’s land, and he had to wrap himself in these pelts and things like that. And then he would use the pelts and use the chalkboard. But they all had specific meanings towards his gestures and marks that he was making. I wanted to somehow import those kinds of issues into my own work.
And so the chalkboards, they were right in front of me. I thought, “Wow, why don’t I start using these chalkboards?” And then I sat down and wondered, “Well, what are chalkboards used for?” They’re used by teachers and by students to learn lessons, but yet the voice of the student is sort of removed. So I started to do chalkboards that were divided and separated. I even cut them up into different kinds of word forms that formed a paragraph. It had references to redacted government letters, and things like that. And then I would offer, like, black chalk on a blackboard. So even if you could write those letters, you’re not going to be able to transmit any kind of information. That would be the start, I think. And from there, I was really interested in doing a film. I was thinking about educational films, and I was working with somebody else. And we were doing our own research to get together on this. It’s very difficult to do a project with another artist, because we’re so—
Rail: You might think you’re on the same track—
Simmons: But you’re not. [Laughter] And you know, I was very much a research person. I started to research early cartoons because I was interested in the way that parents would sit their children down. There was a memory for me of growing up in Queens, sitting in front of Saturday morning cartoons and looking at all of these images. And a lot of them were anchored to stereotypes of race. And so I thought, “Okay, well, I’m going to start to look at something that’s regarded as, you know, these grand educational films like Disney films.” And I saw I was thinking about Dumbo.
Through talking to different people, I started to realize how people remembered that film broke down along racial lines. Black folks remembered the crows. They were these very stereotypical crows that teach Dumbo how to fly and overcome this—I don’t want to say affliction. He had these enormous ears that he was embarrassed by, and the crows teach him that’s actually a good thing. And then he learns to fly. But at the same time, they’re like these very Black, minstrel stereotypes. I realized that people of color remembered the crows and other people didn’t.
So I started to do drawings of those crows, and then sort of erase them. I remembered from lessons in school that there were always these beautiful marks from the previous lesson. You’d see the science lesson, they would erase it, and you’d still see bits and pieces. I was really drawn to that. You always try to make it out. So I started to do these drawings and erase them and I realized that’s it. You have almost a new image that’s created out of representation, and then it becomes abstracted. So the image functions somewhere between representation and abstraction, and the viewer is called on to complete the image in their own memory. I thought that was very powerful.
Rail: I think that the image almost operates on the symbolic plane, which the viewer then has access to regardless of their identity or location. And often in your erasure paintings the image is also made to perform. There’s this linking back to the original context of performance being entertainment on a screen, but they often spin, or they burn, or they’re falling down, or they are radiating, or they are dissolving. There’s this motion in those images too, and those are images that I think you’ve returned to over time. I mean, we see this in the show, Remembering Tomorrow, and of course in the sculpture that you created for the show. That entire room to me is a sculpture, because you are also using the room itself, the walls especially with their paint color and wall peelings. It’s all already there in that structure in that building, and I love how that became part of the sculpture, part of the installation.
What fascinates me is that this difficult experience of high school and being in school and being in the classroom, has become this construct within which you create your work. You are continually exploring and questioning that structure and that system, and all the various ways that we learn. We learn through watching cartoons and television; we learn from reading, we learn from authority figures, right? There’s this continual investigation.
But in this show, I really felt that the gallery itself became this fantastical, but crucially, contemporary classroom. Of course, the monumentalism of the erasure drawings contribute to that, but it’s really stepping into the room of the sculpture. I just love how that classroom construct is so present in the show.
Simmons: Yeah. I’m so happy to hear your read of the show, because that space is very challenging, but also exciting. It’s very cavernous, but at the same time there are ways that you can create intimate moments, and it’s interesting because that’s where the crows are with the lunchroom tables. I was really interested in painting the walls in that room. When you walk around through some of the non-showing spaces of the gallery—there are all of these rooms that make up the campus of Hauser & Wirth LA—and there’s this tower that’s almost abandoned. One of the things I was looking for is that institutional green and if you look around the whole campus, there’s that green color. So I just said, “Okay, I want to use that green in the gallery, so that there’s this kind of constant exchange, so that it reminds you of a schoolroom, but also it incorporates the architecture and the history of this building, this old flour factory.”
Rail: Yeah. I mean, in You Can Paint Over Me But I’ll Still Be Here (2021), you walk into this lunchroom, but it’s completely destabilized. You recognize the references—the wall color, the desks, the graffiti on the desks—but they all turn kind of sideways, and then there are all these crows everywhere. It’s such a classic trope. Their presence is always sort of foreboding.
But I find the title is important and that, similar to the erasure paintings, there is this idea that you can paint over something, you can make this mark, you can erase it, but it’ll still be here. I think that what’s happening in the erasure paintings is also happening in a physically realized sculptural form.
A person I thought about when I was seeing the show was the South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere. He also is continually working with history and memory, but particularly in how it’s embodied in certain objects. Like, what are the memories that a lunch bench evokes? At the same time, his work is also a protest against forgetting, where forgetting is more associated with memory than with history.
In looking at decades of your work, I think this idea of history continually disappearing, and coming and going is so apropos. Even the title of that early body of work, “disinformation,” that is so important today. It was prescient to have this body of work titled disinformation, which obviously was resonating within that educational authority that happens in schools or in the education system.
Stepping into this space, I thought about younger generations—people who are seventeen or eighteen—and what their experience will be like versus somebody else who is older, especially with the cartoons and cartoon characters. I think there’s something so universal and transcendent about them, too. It doesn’t matter what the culture is, or what the figure is, in particular. There’s a language and a vocabulary and a series of actions and a way that a cartoon communicates that people of all ages can relate to.
But I also think there’s something really dark in the individual characters even though the titles are quite cheerful, almost funny. There’s also a kind of third space that’s created between the title, the word, and the image in how those two connect. For example, Honey Typer (2021), and the honey character, or Splish Splash (2021) where there is a sense of harmless fun, easygoing. But then, you know, looking at the images, they’re gendered and there’s this exaggeration of certain gestures, or activities. Can you talk a little bit about the titles and images?
Simmons: Sure. I like to play with titles that have two meanings, and there are threads of a sinister element through most of my work. I like to think of it like the layers of an onion. As you peel them away, it goes from one thing to another. I might use humor to lure the viewer in, and then once we’re having that conversation, it becomes clear that there’s this other element to it. And I think that what you were just mentioning, about history and erasure, is spot on.
I think that Black folks as a whole were people that depended on oral history, as opposed to written history and those stories, they change and move. That word “elastic” is very interesting because the thing about erasure is there’s these moments where something disappears and the gaps are filled in, either in your memory or it’s just pieced together. And I think that’s the way that most of our collective history comes together. I’ll give you an example. I have this photograph from my childhood of me and my sister in the backyard. I’m in one of those little pedal cars and she’s playing beside me. We’re quite young. My grandmother told me the story that’s going on in this photograph, many, many times and, of course, I was too young to actually have a proper memory of the moment. But I’ve heard that story so many times that her telling and retelling has become my memory. And now she’s passed on and I look at that photograph and it is my memory, although I have no actual true memory. Mine is purely based on my grandmother telling me what happened there. I think that’s one of the clearest examples of how the work operates in this way.
If you think about the wall drawings, people always ask, “What happens at the end of the show? What happens to these drawings?” And the answer is we paint over them. And the next question is, “What do you mean paint over? Don’t you want to peel the wall up?” And the answer is no, because the drawings then become part of the institutions that they’re drawn into. There is a literal history that they’re embedding themselves into, whether it’s the institution, the museum, the gallery, the house—and then your recollection of seeing that show is going to change and shift in an elastic way over time. You’re going to remember aspects of this; you’re going to exaggerate certain parts of that; and you’re going to forget certain parts all together. So what happens to that drawing? Yes, it does exist, but it’s purely in your memory.
Those are really experiential pieces. I mean, you can’t get an understanding of what a fifty-foot-long—by fifteen-feet-tall—drawing is unless you’re in the room. It’s one of the reasons why I continue to make art and I don’t do film or something else. We have so much information that comes to us every day, every moment. There’s constantly all of this stuff coming in, and I think when you go into an art exhibition it slows you down for a moment, to look at something, to actually look at something. So to circle back to what you were talking about, I think that the cartoons have this way of being very welcoming to the audience. They call on the audience to almost embrace them, because you immediately go back to your childhood, but then you look at them through a different lens, and you’re starting to see the sinister underpinnings of what those images really meant, and how they embedded themselves in our collective memory.
Rail: They’re out of context, and they’re isolated in that way. And there’s a lot of black space around white space. I find that interesting, especially in the monumental works. I remember being struck by how much black space there was in Lynch Frog (2022) and just feeling really swallowed up by the monumentality, but also by the blackness. This is a show that you also created during the pandemic, right? Can you talk about how it developed?
Simmons: Yes, it was. And it was difficult, but it was also cathartic. I was afforded practically a full year to produce that show. I think that slowed down moment and the pandemic really allowed for me to think things through, to think about how you move from one room to the next. I like to go back to the old school style of building models. I like to stare at an architectural, constructed model on the table and think it through.
I think when you’ve worked as long as I’ve worked, you create a visual language. And I think that you get more and more comfortable with your language, and it expands your visual vocabulary, and you’re able to start to play. It’s almost like visual wordplay. You can bring things back from the past, and they have new contexts and different meanings. I like to think of the way that I work almost like a visual DJ. You take a song from the Jackson 5, and you put it on the turntable, and you mix it with Kool & the Gang, and by the time you identify the Jackson 5 song I’m already on to Kool & the Gang, and Patsy Cline, and anything else that comes on the turntables. So you’re never fixed in what you’re looking at, because fragments of different things keep emerging. Over time I have gotten comfortable with the idea that I can use fragments of my images to create numerous scenarios and different statements. I think that comes with time for an artist.
So, I think that as tragic as the pandemic was—and is—from a studio perspective, it was very good because it allowed me time to focus on what I wanted to do. Even something like Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark (2014–ongoing) that has really activated the courtyard in a different sort of way. I think people just watching the way people interact with the Ark, or navigate the Ark, or come up to it or take photographs on the platform, has really changed the way that people look at the work. It’s not from a distance. The viewer is invited to go up on the stage and actually, you know, from a certain distance, really view the speakers up close.
It’s been amazing to watch people like Savion Glover perform on the Ark. My daughter is going to perform next week on the Ark. There’s been some amazing people and there’s going to continue to be some amazing people on it. That’s been a really interesting process, to create something that’s almost a living sculpture that then gets programmed by somebody other than me.
Rail: Let’s talk a little more about The Black Ark. You made it in 2014 for Prospect.3. I think most people think of the ark from the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. You know, the floods came and Noah was charged with evacuating two of everything so that a new world could begin. What I find so powerful about your Ark is that it’s made of all these salvaged materials from New Orleans. It’s a living sculpture in the sense that it’s also a living archive of Black culture and Black history and Black resilience and joy—all those things—because through music you sort of take that archetype and turn it into something that is truer to Black people’s experience. That our culture is mobile, that we are mobile, that the storytelling, the oral histories, and music is how we transmute.
And so I really love that work in the sense that it is so alive and conceptually at odds with its title. When you think of “ark,” you think solidity, you think something that floats, you think something that houses, and of course it’s everything but that! Yes, there’s a solidity to the sound, and the speakers being stacked does form a kind of monument. But how one experiences it is to participate, to be alive with it, and that being alive, carrying it in our DNA, these cultural codes and practices and rituals—the work makes room for all these things. So, I think it’s more than a living sculpture. It’s this kind of living repository, everyone who participates leaves something within the art. One final question on that note, what are you hoping visitors take away from your show?
Simmons: Good question. What is it that I hope for? I hope that the show opens up more questions, and provides a platform for dialogue. If you notice, over the course of my work, I don’t do portraiture. It’s not that I have something against portraiture, I think there’s some amazing portrait painters out there, but I’m not interested in that. That’s a different conversation than the one I’m interested in. I’m interested in the broader sort of questions that can be asked in those exchanges. Exchange is very important to me. I think that the exchange between the artist and the audience, and maybe the folks that are in there at the same time, if they can leave that room and continue some of those conversations, that would be the biggest hope for doing an exhibition. I don’t think that art can provide answers, but it can definitely continue to ask the questions.
Some of the things I was dealing with earlier in my career—as much as they are relevant now, it’s sad that some of those issues haven’t been resolved—we’re still dealing with a lot of those things I was doing in the late eighties and early nineties. Sadly, I think we’re going to continue to ask those same questions, and that’s why I really am not interested in the entertainment of art. I don’t think that’s valuable in any kind of way, not when there are bigger questions to be asked.