Gary Simmons is a Los Angeles based artist with New York roots. On view at Metro Pictures, New York is ‘Screaming into the Ether’ consisting of a collection of paintings that expands Simmons’ examination into cultural nuances. ‘Screaming into the Ether’ confronts the propagation of racial stereotypes which continue to frame the world.
The paintings that circumference the walls are minimal in aesthetic and colour, yet compliment the profound imagery. The background of the canvasses is different hues of grey, giving the appearance of a school blackboard or whiteboard. Painted onto the canvases are looney toon characters from the 1930s – “Bosko”, his girlfriend “Honey”, and Bosko’s “little sister”. The American media introduced these cartoon characters as degrading caricatures of black Americans. Simmons’ work is powerful because these images spark a conversation about the intersections between race and racism and show how America still allows oppression to thrive, even in the form of a cartoon.
With much of his work and these paintings, Simmons’ employs an erasure technique. He first paints the character onto the canvas then uses his hands to blur the images into the background. Simmons erases the structured framework of each character by dragging his hand, smudging and distorting the inscribed outlines of the cartoons. These paintings are evidence and proof of the persistent and underlying racial stereotypes ingrained within our culture. The effects of this entanglement produce a racist resin within our memories that become difficult to dispel.
Simmons uses various materials to create the erasure effect - charcoal, pastel, wax and paint. Some of the paintings are jovial cartoons, such as ‘Let Me Introduce Myself’ (2020), where Bosko smiles and waves his top hat. Another pleasant depiction is ‘Piano Man’ (2020), where the cartoon looks back at the viewer and sheepishly grins as he plays the piano. Others are more menacing, cryptic even. ‘Bracing for the Blast’ (2020) is Honey, Bosko’s girlfriend. She stands in her dainty outfit, yet frustrated with her fingers plugging her ears. Another shares a title with the exhibition, ‘Screaming into the Ether’ (2020). This painting the canvas is a white-washed grey with yellow streaks. The black-painted cartoon character screams with his arms out and his mouth open.
Simmons depicts the characters as ghostly fragments. He turns “innocent” cartoonish subject matter into chilling, visual imagery that personifies the racial politics of American history. Now, more than ever, Simmons’ exhibition is profoundly relevant and aligns with the injustice and activism currently dissipated throughout the world. The title of the show, ‘Screaming into the Ether’ resonates especially, with the feeling of not being heard. Now, the unforeseeable future of the pandemic plagues the world along with the violence of the failure to see that not only racial injustice but systemic racism poisons the world. We are living in a world where most of us want to either actually or metaphorically scream, and Simmons’ work captures ambiguous feelings of hopelessness and frustration. Within a cartoon figure, Simmons’ forces viewers to recognise a politically charged history of racism which forces viewers to “scream into the ether”.