On ViewQueens Museum
Crisis Makes a Book Club
October 2, 2022–March 5, 2023
How do we stop ourselves from reaching the tipping point of revolution? The party with the stranglehold on resources must peacefully yield its privilege and share everything. In the comprehensive survey exhibition Crisis Makes a Book Club, Xaviera Simmons explains with brutal clarity the need for real gestures; land acknowledgments without Land Back will not do, and there can be no equality without reparations. As the title calls out, starting book clubs to read the literature of the oppressed without yielding the social and economic capital demanded in those very texts means nothing. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Align (2022), a site-specific shrine, temple, or a Ka’aba-like structure that evokes a mystical building or a room with an awe-inspiring presence. A non-linear, hand-written text in white paint on a deep-absorbent black, matte background flows around the exterior of the structure, which itself is a building within a building, rising twice the height of a person like the otherworldliness of Kubrick’s monolith. The text of block capital letters flickers between opacity and transparency, up and down the structure, the complete words and individual letters sometimes crowding each other or leaving gaping lacunae, delineating the artist’s antidote to revolution. This rushing and stuttering flow compels the viewer to circle the structure to absorb the words. With Align, Simmons challenges the viewer—specifically liberal white viewers—to stop hiding behind empty gestures and thinly-veiled racism. One passage quotes James Baldwin’s essay “On Being White … and Other Lies,” published in Essence magazine in 1984: “BECAUSE THEY THINK THEY ARE WHITE THEY CANNOT ALLOW THEMSELVES TO BE TORMENTED BY THE SUSPICION THAT ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS.” Align’s text is an entrancing, chant-like, stream of consciousness monologue; it lays the blueprint for the construction and deconstruction of whiteness, its beneficiaries, and a methodical rejection of all excuses someone might have for not claiming culpability in benefiting from anti-Black racism, like being able to say, “My ancestors didn’t own slaves,” returning again and again to the darkly humorous proposition that “crisis makes a book club.”
Simmons wants the viewer to look up and engage a sense of awe, a strategic move that almost guarantees that we will register what she has to say. On the Grand Central Parkway façade of the Queens Museum, a full-story tall vinyl banner (a piece also titled Crisis Makes a Book Club) competes with the museum’s own signage. Drawing on the highway billboards often employed by the conservative political right in the cause of anti-choice and strict Christian morals, Simmons’s confident demand for self-searching and an end to self-delusion, especially on the left, is particularly effective. She also employs monumentality in her three large-scale clay, plaster, and papier-mâché femme figurines, Gallery 6 Figures: No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 (2022). While drawing on archetypical Paleolithic feminine figurines like the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Hohle fels, Simmons makes her entities non-white (they are painted a satiny, gray-brown) and to a degree, androgynous. While they may be pregnant—their bellies are swollen, and the traditional Paleolithic ivory and ceramic figurines that the artist is referencing had strong connections to fertility and general feminine health—they aren’t necessarily female. The figures tower over the viewer in a way that insists we absorb their refusal of the western, white, and male art historical canon, which since the late nineteenth century has forcibly incorporated these Paleolithic figurines as original works within the canon. Furthermore, they explicate the racist history of the term “Venus” itself (and why we shouldn’t use it). Initially, these voluptuous figures were called “venuses” after Saartjie Baartman, an enslaved woman from South Africa displayed like an animal in early nineteenth-century London and Paris, and referred to as the Hottentot Venus. Unlike Jeff Koons’s stainless steel, apolitical, and oversize Paleolithic female figures, Simmons focuses on the notion of the hand-made: the surfaces are satiny, mottled, and bumpy, and their adornments are simple ropes or bands. Simmons’s figurines are not goddesses but approachable beings that extol the other.
A series of photographs offers a brief, yet more personal counterpoint to the monumental presences of Align and the Gallery 6 Figures. In these bright enlargements of polaroids surrounding the central installation, Simmons mostly depicts flowers, and occasionally herself, obscured behind or holding the arrangements. In this series, called “Florals” (2022), the artist cites “the use of flower iconography in abolitionist movements,” a nod to the possibility that momentous change need not “grow out of the barrel of a gun” (as the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong said at a speech during an emergency meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, just before the insurrection in Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, known as the Autumn Harvest Uprising). Instead, momentous change can be accomplished through beauty, apart from historically masculine and violent means.
Simmons also is cognizant of the problem of posing questions without offering solutions. In the video Questions for the La Jornada and Queens Museum Cultural Food Pantry (2022), she documents the Queens Museum’s ongoing project—a collaboration with La Jornada, a Queens-based food pantry—to provide food, exercise, art, and language classes to local communities that suffered inordinately during the pandemic. Installed as a strikingly vertical projection in two parts, with the top portion posing a series of questions each in English, Spanish, and Mandarin, in keeping with Simmon’s project of unpacking capitalism in America while the lower projection presents a series of responses from food pantry organizers, volunteers, and partons along with images of the Cultural Food Pantry activities.
Simmons has placed the eye of the hurricane on the interior of Align, creating a space of calm painted in clay-like ochre with six flat screens displaying nature scenes, and including benches for a moment of respite. The locations of these placid shorelines, forest vistas, and seascapes on the flat screens are not revealed. Land can be possessed and tagged with meaning, but it is also raceless and classless, and functions as a grounding mechanism for Align. At the center of this is a seventh screen featuring a sculptural fragment in a courtyard at the Vatican museum (an image also displayed on Simmons’s sign on the museum’s exterior). It is a brutal depiction of an imperial lion attacking a horse. Works of the Greeks and Romans, long used by powerful institutions (and now by the political right in the United States and Europe) serve as an anchor for arguments of white supremacy. The Vatican and the papacy are the organs that declared papal bulls, papal infallibility, and the Doctrine of Discovery. That rule theoretically and theologically enabled the conquests of North and South America, much of Africa, and the attendant genocide, theft, and destruction that have determined the balance of global power to this day. The marble lion devouring a horse looms bright in the sunlight for a minute, but then Simmons’s figure blots it out—an easy, quick, and painless gesture. With Crisis Makes a Book Club, we are being schooled; the shifts in power, and the healing and reconciliation we so desperately need can happen without violence, now, Simmons seems to be imploring us. But without taking heed, the options for a non-violent and equitable future dwindle precipitously.