Double Feature, Gary Simmons’s first solo exhibition in Switzerland, consists of seven medium to large-scale works, most of which are executed in Simmons’s typical technique of pigment, oil paint and cold wax on canvas: textured, lush, monochrome surfaces on which the subject is displayed in contrasting white paint. The paintings in the exhibition draw their imagery from American mainstream culture, often referencing classic horror movies or using symbols, such as famous drive-in theater marquees, that evoke notions of Hollywood and Americana.
These landmarks appear as shadows of what they once were, fading witnesses to the former glory of these hubs, as in the case of Holiday, which depicts the now defunct Holiday Drive-In Marquee. Built in the 1950’s, the theatre closed in 1988, rendered obsolete as new trends set in. The marquee remains as a lonely vestige of the drive-in’s booming past. A sense of ghostly nostalgia pervades this and other paintings by Simmons. The undulating, smoky upward streaks emanating from the marquee give the impression that it is going up in flames. This effect owes to the artist’s trademark “erasure” technique, which has been essential to his work these past two decades. Simmons’s approach to painting is physical, almost performative. He begins with a legible image, then smears the wet paint across the canvas, smudging certain parts and leaving others intact to create motion and movement. As a result, his subjects appear enveloped in smoke, or caught in a whirlwind, always on the brink of disappearing. “I like the idea of the trace,” the artist explains. “The information that blurs in and out– ‘Is it there? Is it not?’ It’s like a ghost… kind of there, sometimes not.”
Mother, Oh, Mother, the largest piece in the exhibition, features another Hollywood icon, the house made infamous by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 psychological thriller Psycho. The painting’s title is a direct quote of one of Norman Bates’ lines in the movie, uttered just after the notorious shower scene. Three images of the house appear one beneath the other to create the impression of a vertical moving filmstrip. The sense of movement in the picture is once again enhanced by the physicality of the process itself, by the skyward white traces streaking upwards from the house, contrasting against a textured black background.
The vanishing effect in Simmons’s works alludes to issues larger than aesthetic. In his paintings Aerial Rotation and Which which is which, Simmons depicts blurry, spinning human skulls on bright blue and yellow backgrounds. He grapples here with racial stereotyping and the theories of early nineteenth-century anthropologists who attempted to scientifically validate the superiority of the white race on the sole basis of the size and shape of the human skull, which, containing the brain, would provide a measure of intelligence and moral conduct. By erasing the image, by making it indistinct, Simmons suggests the erasure or obliteration of the stereotype itself.
House on a Hill (Ennis House) represents the well-known mansion in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923 and made famous by its appearance in dozens of Hollywood film productions since 1933. A spectacular example of Mayan revival architecture, it is no surprise that the house’s unusual appearance and imposing dimensions caught the attention of many film directors. Rising above space and time, it has been repurposed as a psychiatric ward, an ancient villa, a haunted house (famously — and eponymously — in 1959’s House on Haunted Hill), even as a science laboratory. However, it is best known as Rick Deckard’s abode in Ridley Scott’s 1982 science-fiction blockbuster, Blade Runner, which deals with a race war of sorts. American movies have afforded Simmons the opportunity to expose the extent to which attitudes towards race are embedded in our culture and in our entertainment.
The work in Double Feature presents a shift of focus for Simmons, from a concern with the role education plays in our perception of the world, as in earlier work, to the way other aspects of culture are continually impacting our collective view, in particular movies and popular culture as providers of a less formalized education, equally powerful in determining attitudes towards race, class, cultural identity and memory of the personal and collective sort. These are subjects he tackles through subject matter and technique, brilliantly conveying the subjectivity of our memory — how we forget certain things and retain others, and how this unconsciously selective amnesia shapes the recollection and reconstruction of our past — by “erasing.” Double Exposure, however, is hard to shake.
GARY SIMMONS: DOUBLE EXPOSURE
SAKS GALLERY, GENEVA
Rue de la Synagogue, 34
9 September – 11 November