Remember Honey, or Bosko, or the chattering crows in Dumbo? Probably not, because they were animated characters and features whose heyday was generations ago, and who’ve been quietly excised from the canon of late on account of their racism. All the more reason for their revival by painter and sculptor Gary Simmons, who uses pop culture as source material but is not at all a Pop artist. With shady joy and wit and a post-AbEx style, Simmons has spent decades excavating American history, especially through the lens of art and music, in search of dark corners to illuminate, histories to challenge and/or reclaim, and impactful cultural experiences to share in community.
In a series of new paintings, a sculptural installation, and a roving, growing stage set holding space for interdisciplinary activations, Simmons presents a series of new works on canvas that exist as counterfactual stills from animations starring these and other problematic figures. Their vintage visages and styling remain extra and uncomfortable, but in the world of the paintings they live their best, joyful, average lives. Because of the way they are rendered and made, it is difficult to be certain if the smeared scenes are formulating or disintegrating – and isn’t that always the question these days?
The exhibition also includes four new monumental, site-specific murals that further highlight Simmons’ recurrent motif and metaphor of focus and erasure. On a crisp ground of blackboard paint that effectively wraps the entire cavernous room, white chalk drawings embody their own guided entropy and endlessly recall the artist’s hand and presence. Always intended as compositions of remnant traces, containing even in their voided forms the echoes of what occurred there, forever threatening further disappearance, these drawings are breathtaking in their evocative clarity.
There’s massive cognitive dissonance generated by the cartoonish, elusively nostalgic images and the slow-motion violence of the rough gestural surface of their partly-erased smears, not to mention the flatness of the drawing against the topographical textures of their surfaces. This is amplified in the uncanny tension between the paintings’ intimate black and white sketchbook aesthetic and their enactment on a large scale. Simmons would like you to keep that same energy of dissonance and apply it toward a deeper understanding of just how insidiously, and in deceptively innocent guises, racism has been presented in cultural places where you’d least expect it – like classic cartoons and even (especially?) the classroom.
In You Can Paint Over Me But I’ll Still Be Here, Simmons arranges a suite of school cafeteria tables in various stages of folding-up. The tables have been painted over with a crisp teal to ineffectively conceal the proliferation of graffiti and other high-spirited vandalism beneath; a murder of crows in low-slung hats is perched all across the tables. Both funny and sinister and like so much of Simmons’ work indirect and paradoxical in its eliciting of emotion and triggering of memory, the work guides the audience through its stages – curiosity and recognition, cheerful recollection, and slow realization. More than a context for calling out the racist tropes in the Disney crows, the siting of the gesture in a setting of public education indicts the entire cultural system for the bigotry that goes unchecked, but arguably does the most damage.
The final work in the exhibition occupies the gallery’s outdoor courtyard. Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark (2014 – ongoing) is a peripatetic work that grows and changes both by absorbing materials from, and offering its theatrical platform to, the communities where it appears. A warm, vintage yet somehow futuristic bricolage of speakers and amps, the stacked sculpture and its literal/figurative platform were originally built from reclaimed materials from Katrina’s ravages and shown at New Orleans’ Prospect.3 biennial. It has since traveled to Miami, San Francisco, and Coachella Valley’s Desert X. In its first visit to Los Angeles, the installation is the site of numerous Saturday afternoon public activations and performances – a quality antidote to the disappointing truth of some Saturday morning cartoons.
On view through May 22 at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles in the downtown Arts District; hauserwirth.com.