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ART REVIEW : Social Studies on the Blackboard : Gary Simmons' Powerful 'Erasure Drawings' Softly Deliver a Stark Comment on America's Manic Hellishness

October 05, 1995|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Every now and then a young artist of demonstrable, if not fully tested, gifts comes upon an unusually compelling opportunity and, ambitiously seizing the day, pushes his work over the top to a new and breathtaking plateau. For the audience it's a double-header: You get to experience exceptional art while also witnessing an important milestone in an artist's career.

I haven't seen every show that 31-year-old artist Gary Simmons has had, but I have seen quite a few. There can be no doubt that the magnificent exhibition of monumental wall-drawings he has just completed in the main gallery at the Lannan Foundation is one of those rare, defining moments. Organized by former Lannan director Lisa Lyons, who resigned the post after the foundation decided to disperse its art collection and end its exhibition program next year, the show reveals a mature artist of major talent.

I have been of two minds about Simmons' work in the past. His sculptures, with their obviously intelligent but often stilted attempt to teach a lesson, have usually left me cold. The implied relationship between artist (as teacher) and audience (as student) was all wrong. It left no common ground for meaningful artistic engagement.

But his drawings are another story. They speak of a slightly different pedagogical urge, which is declared by their materials.

Simmons draws in chalk on surfaces prepared with slate paint, in the manner of a school-room lesson laid out on a blackboard. The format claims several precedents, including Cy Twombly, Vernon Fisher and, perhaps most notably for Simmons' artistic aspirations, Joseph Beuys.

However, as the suite of five "Erasure Drawings" at Lannan attests, Simmons doesn't lecture as much as attempt to persuasively shadow forth ideas. Rather than tell a coherent narrative, he poetically evokes the conflicted state of an artist inhabiting contemporary society--and, by extension, that of our own discordant experience.

The drawings are huge. The largest, which shows a dancing elfin figure madly playing the flute before a vast, star-studded night sky, is more than 15 feet high and 70 feet long, wrapping around three walls. Another image of an immense chandelier, flanked by curving staircases in a grand ballroom, stretches more than 50 feet.

The dimensions of the remaining wall-drawings are similarly imposing. They envelop the exquisite main gallery at Lannan, remaking the environment.

As with much of Simmons' work, the images on these big blackboards have evolved from old animated cartoons. The raucous tone of manic madness, which cartoons so artfully represent within modern culture, creates a familiar yet thoroughly destabilizing space that aptly describes our world.

So do Simmons' chosen images. There's the elegant ballroom chandelier whose crystal drops turn out to be made from clusters of hangman's nooses; an impressive royal throne, now ominously vacant; a ghostly pirate ship, with a wooden tub as makeshift lifeboat that's now adrift at sea; a flurry of airborne spears, some of which have made a comic U-turn and are flying back toward the unseen origin of their launch; and the merry, Matissean flute-player, whose celestial revelry might well be taking place beneath the horrifying specter of a falling sky.

The litany is one of grandeur masking hellishness, of malice, abandoned responsibility and grave reversals of fortune, whose relevance to current American social life is stark. In the midst of the alarming chaos stands the artist--and us.

Simmons' layers of suggestive social meaning are matched by the layers in his drawing process. First he paints a big rectangle directly on the wall, using black, liquid slate. Next, he employs blackboard erasers to swipe the whole surface with veils of chalk, using big, broad, gestural movements.

The markings create an atmospheric undercoating, which subtly suggests that other, long-forgotten stories have already been told here. This abstract under-drawing then becomes the surface for his poignant figurative images.

These are boldly drawn in white chalk, with the aid of an overhead projector. Finally, using his hands, Simmons partially erases the chalk images on which he has so intensely labored. Given their grand scale, the erasures are necessarily made in big, repetitive, even violent strokes. The erasures have body in them.

They're also sensuous, partly because visible handprints remain. Lurking behind these monumental murals is the ghost of Abstract Expressionism (remember when Rauschenberg erased a De Kooning drawing?), although an aura of solitary anxiety has been replaced by communal apprehension.

Sometimes, as in the hangman's chandelier, the circular motion of the erasures seems to make the image spin, enhancing the picture's source in animation art. Elsewhere, the horizontal sweep creates the illusion of an unseen wind blowing mysteriously through the scene.

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