Bonham Marquee (2012)
Color aquatint etching, image 27 x 36 inches, sheet 32 x 40 inches. Edition of 35. $2500.
Starlight Theatre (2012)
Color aquatint etching, image 27 x 36 inches, sheet 32 x 40 inches. Edition of 35. $2500. All printed and published by Paulson Bott Press, Berkeley, CA.
Lost Classics (2012)
Set of 25 lithographs, 43.5 x 43.5 cm each. Edition of 15. Printed and published by Polígrafa Obra Gràfica, Barcelona. $20,000.
Gary Simmons is best known for his “erasure” paintings, in which he draws in white chalk on painted canvas then wipes the chalk away in long strokes so each mark tapers away like a wind-blown jet trail. His subjects—movie marquees, cartoon clips, isolated phrases—appear in the decontextualized seclusion typical of things on blackboards. Sometimes, as with his series of blackface cartoons, the subjects are socially uncomfortable, but more often they are ambivalent artifacts of a culture in which race and social class are simply pervasive facts. The erasure—or rather the failed attempt at erasure, since the images remain identifiable—softens them. They hover between presence and absence; “ghostly” is a term that crops up frequently in descriptions.
Though Simmons has only recently started to make prints, he is a natural. His interest in the troubled re-presentation of the commonplace and his monochromatic visual sensibility are both in tune with the natural strengths of printmaking.
At Paulson Bott, Simmons worked with cinematic icons: two movie theater façades, two reiterations of Jack Nicholson’s psychotic mantra in The Shining, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and two sets of chandeliers in motion (one from The Shining and the other from the Hitchcock movie Marnie.) Simmons’ directional smearing endows these things with both a romantic haze and a worrying sense of motion: the chandeliers spin and swing as if possessed, the typescript seems to race across the paper, the movie marquis seem to be in flames. Creeping threat and seductive beauty exist here in equal measure.
Simmons’ recently completed lithographs with Polígrafa Obra Gráfica in Barcelona also derive from pop culture: the 25 record labels portrayed in Lost Classics form a cumulative portrait of pre-Rap African-American music in the 20th century, from jazz to gospel to R&B; from the operatic aria recorded by Florence Cole Talbert on Black Swan Records in 1922 to McKinley Mitchell’s 1971 Soul lament, “This Place Ain’t Getting No Better.” Some of the labels and acts are well known (King and Verve, Sam and Dave), but most demand some research to unpack their significance (Black Swan Records was one of the earliest black-run record labels, initially concentrating on classical music.) Some, however, speak poignantly through their titles alone: “The Truth About Money” on the Fantasy label, or, on a label called Prosperity, “Great Day” by Rev. James Lofton and His Church of Our Prayer 250 Voice Choir. Like the chandeliers, like the marquees, these offer hope and despair, aspiration and disenchantment.