We can feel life in an empty playground, an empty factory, an empty classroom. It is the empty academic setting to which artist Gary Simmons has turned his camera, with memorable results.
The St. Louis Art Museum stays afloat in the waters of the latest modern art thanks to the Currents series of emerging artists. The revolving-door gallery that is Currents now showcases the latest development in the career of the evolving artist Simmons.
A visit to Gallery 337 yields a confrontation with seven large-scale photographic prints of abandoned classrooms, conference rooms, study carrels and auditoriums at Ivy League universities. They are sufficiently large and of such perspective that we feel we are inside these rooms. Why have we come here? The viewer is alone, perhaps as a ghost, in "rooms that have had successive generations of use," as Rochelle Steiner, assistant curator of modern art, puts it. All of the traffic, these generations of youth who have come to expand their minds in spaces specially constructed for learning, has left a kind of spoor.
What we see in these photos varies according to the viewer. What is significant is that there is some resonance for each of us, because images from the formative years, as they are called, hold power. The large field of numbered chairs of "Not in Session" reveals us as numbers in a cattle culture of impersonal masses. Similarly, the study carrels of "Low Noise Zone" are practically solitary-confinement cells in a prison. The periodic table resting above 10 sliding blackboards in "Periodic" lies ready to indoctrinate another year of eager freshmen into some obscure cult. The dim lighting and grid of sturdy chairs in "511" suggest some secret knowledge imparted to a pack of acolytes who fled just before the photographer arrived. Viewers will make associations with hard work, happy times, exclusion of minorities from higher education, useless knowledge and who knows what else. The images are purposely ambiguous yet universally resonant.
Looking at Simmons' career makes it apparent that he is still very much changing and developing as an artist. At Minneapolis' Walker Art Center in 1991, for a group exhibit called Interrogating Identity, Simmons displayed a pair of bronzed Reeboks, a video installation of a bouncing basketball paired with the sounds of tap dancing, and a pair of robes hung on the gallery wall, their backs embroidered "Us" and "Them." These early stabs at conceptual art clearly sent messages about his views on the black experience in America. He later placed a live and voluble cockatoo on a podium before a blackboard, communicating his views on education rather baldly.
Then, switching the medium and the message, Simmons' work became more complex. He attracted attention for a series of exhibits involving wall-sized blackboards marked by chalk drawings that he had rubbed partially out with his hands. Visitors were affected by the reproductions of racist images from old cartoons, such as the avuncular crows from Disney's Dumbo, and the way Simmons had nearly but not entirely erased them. The effect was of a subjective dream image hovering in blackness. His political explanation was that a stereotype cannot be completely erased but persists in the mind, perhaps indistinctly, partly because of pop culture.
He turned his focus to learning and memory and how they interact, drawing objects that carry loaded memories like a romantic Victorian gazebo and a roller coaster that filled the museum wall. His hand-blurring of the chalk drawings was different for each image, depending on what he wanted to convey. His roller coaster is a humongous ghost that must be seen to be fully appreciated. It and other objects seem to be in motion or frantic buzzing as a result of the smearing.
Most recently Simmons filled a New York gallery with a glut of free-standing chalkboards on which he drew coniferous trees on one side and buildings on the obverse. The effect of twisting around the blackboards to view the exhibit was of moving in a train past forests and small towns. Again he was playing with the way "sites of memory," as he puts it, embed themselves in the mind, perhaps influenced by the hypnotic motion of a journey by train and the ever-shifting views from the window. And, of course, the chalkboard exhibits were all site-specific and temporary, underscoring the fleeting nature of memory.
"The (Currents) pictures are focused on the idea of memory and pedagogy, the ways we learn and remember, sites where we learn and remember, the ways our memory is formed based on our learning," says Steiner.
These sites are nearly as big as life, in photographs sized to dominate a wall. They can't be ignored, not because they are a lively spectacle but because they are a dead spectacle. They are charmless pupae from which lectured-at young adults emerge annually. This is the last place we come to learn about life before we are released into it.
"I'm really drawn to an object or space that has a layered history -- like a ballroom or an amusement park," Simmons has said. "These are places that people have shared but have a very personal experience to, yet they define something larger and structural, a certain kind of political or perhaps romantic experience."
The perspective of Simmons' camera forces the viewer into the room. We become the nocturnal janitor, and we are creeping around the spooky, empty, alien halls of academia. Just as the visitor to Simmons' moving-train-image exhibit participated in the experience by having to wind around the closely spaced blackboards, visitors to Currents 80 will feel as if they can step into the walls, into these inviting yet clinical spaces. Again, the way we move through a room forever alters our perception of what the room is, our memory of what the room was. Our physical motions "fragment our experience," as Simmons says, allowing us to "construct memory." This conceit operates cleverly within the artworks as well as within the gallery itself.
As an artist who has referenced race, class, the way memory works, how we learn and the meta-experience of the museum itself, Simmons would seem to be in a protean stage of development, and it is exciting to host his work in St Louis.
Currents 80: Gary Simmons is on display Dec. 10-Feb. 27.