Gary Simmons on the Erasure of Black Lives

Gary Simmons, Minds Playing Tricks on Me, 1998. Photo by Elon Schoenholz
If you're looking for an online exhibition worthy of the moment, you might try "Sanctuary: Recent Acquisitions to the Permanent Collection" at the California African American Museum's website. Intended to have opened March 18, "Sanctuary"'s art was installed just before lockdown. The CAAM site does a simple though effective job of documenting an exhibition that almost no one has seen. Artists include Sadie Barnette, April Bey, Carly Jay Harris, Lyle Ashton Harris, Janna Ireland, Yinka Shonibare, and Sam Vernon.
Gary Simmons, Fade to Black, 2017, at the California African American Museum
Gary Simmons' Minds Playing Tricks on Me (1998), a gift of Eileen Harris Norton, is an early erasure drawing. As such it's a stylistic precursor to Fade to Black, the CAAM lobby mural that was on view from 2017-2019. Minds Playing Tricks on Me is a double-sided blackboard showing a snow-laden fir tree and architecture pulled into a vortex, both partly effaced.

Simmons' erasure technique dates from Pollywanna, a 1990 installation of a blackboard, a podium with microphone, and a live cockatoo screeching learnt phrases into the mike. It was conceived as a critique of the American educational system as a driver of inequality. Simmons noticed that whenever the cockatoo ruffled its feathers, it left faint traces on the blackboard. "It was this kind of cinematic effect," Simmons said, "these weird trails. I thought, 'Wow, that's incredible. I've got to get that in my work.'"

Simmons began making chalk drawings on blackboards, partly erasing them, and then saving the erasures with a fixative. It's erased de Kooning + Beuys hagiography + erasure of black lives.
Gary Simmons, Minds Playing Tricks on Me, 1998. Photo by Elon Schoenholz
The title of the CAAM work references the Geto Boys' Mind Playing Tricks on Me. Released in 1991, the year of the Rodney King beating, the Geto Boys track inaugurated the Houston-emo phase of gangsta hip-hop. It segues from boasting to the lived reality of underclass angst. The song has its own origin story. Scarface heard his grandmother talking to herself. "Mawmaw, what you talking about?" he asked. "Oh, nothing, my mind's just been playing tricks on me."

There is a hallucinatory quality to Simmons' erasure pieces, oddly relevant to our age of gaslighting. But the erasures are also rooted in the past: memories of old classrooms, old race movies, old racist cartoons. Simmons presents the past as a wraith we will never be able to exorcise.
Installation view of "Sanctuary: Recent Acquisitions to the Permanent Collection," CAAM. Photo by Elon Schoenholz


Anonymous said…
Thank you.
Anonymous said…
On the subject of "racism" and the art world:

"The art world as a predominantly white entity must be far more vigilant in the ways it remains complicit in racist structures and cease simply parroting black people’s words in times of trauma. Days into nightly nationwide protests, decades into reports of systematised violence against black people, and centuries into systemic oppression that benefits the white and wealthy in this country, it is not just too little too late, but insulting if not dangerous to black communities—as the 5Arts case proves—if museums, galleries and auction houses do not make changes to the way they do their business and the people they do it with in the here and now."

The "encyclopedic museum" and the system of patronage that supports it is one the ways the art world "remains complicit in racist structures." On cue, as the article notes, LACMA was the first museum in the world to issue a statement of solidarity with the protests. Recent events have only served to strengthen LACMA's argument for dismantling the "encyclopedic museum."
Anonymous said…
More on the controversy cited above:

Faced with increasing pressure from critics and mounting civil unrest, some museums began issuing statements early in the week, and a few became the subject of controversy. The Getty in Los Angeles was among the first to be blasted for its social media posts over the weekend, which did not mention Floyd or Black Lives Matter. “We heard you,” Getty president Jim Cuno wrote in an apology posted to Instagram on Monday, adding, “We learned that we can do much better expressing our Getty values than we did yesterday, and we apologize.”

Anonymous said…
The Association of Art Museum Directors on the controversy cited above:

"As a community, I do not think art museums have done enough. We have dabbled around the edges of the work, but in our place of privilege we will never live up to the statement that “museums are for everyone” unless we begin to confront, examine and dismantle the various structures that brought us to this point."

As I said above, recent events have served to strengthen LACMA's argument for dismantling the "encyclopedic" museum.
Anonymous said…
LACMA has a satellite at Charles White Elementary (one of Govan’s first act when he arrived) and a long term lease in south LA at the South LA Wetlands Park. Govan has his hands full right now in mid-Wiltshire. But do people really think Govan doesn’t want to build another Día-Beacon? Building a smaller Geffen galleries almost guarantees the latter in South LA. Black art has entered through LACMA’s front door since Govan arrived. He arrived to BCAM and almost it’s all white male collection since departed and he build the Resnick, like a mini Zumpthor. Since 2017 he put a Mark Bradford mural size work almost blocking the entrance to the Resnick, making every person who enters that building confront a bigger than life work at an overwhelming scale, an artistic opposition to the white men elite that once, and sort of still dominates BCAM, with a work by a black man about the execution of another black man by another white Minnesota officer ( Not many museums give a BLM work that kind of central role. And by all appearances it was Govan who secured it for LACMA three years ago.
Anonymous said…
The Director of the V&A East on museums and racism:

"These men who defined the Enlightenment, constructed its hierarchies and categories, these intellectuals who laid out the framework of modern law, morality and its identified metaphysics – looked upon Africa, a well-populated and varied-cultured continent, and saw in its peoples nothing – a void, a cultural tabula rasa – silence. It made colonialism, and the imposition of Western cultural norms, seem like a kindness.

[...] The Enlightenment is the period in which the museum sector was born and alongside it was the intellectual apparatus of race and racism. What Shonibare seeks to do here is to challenge that implicit hierarchy and to do so explicitly.

We must do the same."

Shonibare is the British-Nigerian artist whose work he is addressing.

Here is a link to the entire statement:
Anonymous said…

> As I said above, recent events have served
> to strengthen LACMA's argument for dismantling
> the "encyclopedic" museum.

On the backs of a lot of hard-working working-class people throughout Los Angeles County, the ones who will be among those having to wrestle with all of LACMA's red ink in the upcoming years.

Govan (and his toadies in LA county and city governments) is the effete dilettante who believes his virtue is both signaled and unimpeachable because he's managed to pull off a gold-plated scheme on the saps of the community.

At least George Lucas' museum is coming out of his own piggy bank and will contain a lot of art that won't appeal mainly to the 1% Sotheby's and Christie's crowd.

Let them eat cake, darlings.