Gary Simmons | Artist Overview

One of the foremost artists of a generation which emerged during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gary Simmons has achieved wide acclaim over the past three decades for his work which explores the politics of race, class and social stereotypes through painting, sculpture, sound and architectural environments. Simmons uses imagery drawn from popular culture to create works that address personal and collective memories.

Simmons’ use of pedagogical motifs, in particular readymade chalkboards, led to the formal and aesthetic breakthrough that would inform much of his subsequent work, in which erasure of the image has been a powerful and recurring theme. Outlines of characters, scenes and words—based on 20th-century cartoons steeped in the racist traditions of minstrelsy, disappeared architectural sites, vintage film title cards, evaporating clouds of smoke and stars—are drawn or painted then blurred and smeared by hand. The tropes of erasure and ephemerality suggest the fleeting nature of memory and histories re-written. As the artist explains: ‘I started to think about how images on blackboards can never be fully erased. It was about trying to erase a stereotype and the traces of the racial pain that you drag along with you.’ A landmark piece commissioned for the Whitney Biennial, ‘Wall of Eyes’ (1993), picturing a smudged field of cartoon eyes drawn with chalk over slate paint applied directly to the wall, revealed the aesthetic possibilities of chalkboard at a monumental scale.

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All of my work exists in a place that hovers between becoming and disappearance, that is the power of erasure and what links the sculpture and the paintings.”

Tammie Rubin