Gary Simmons explores the residue of American history in chalk drawing and printmaking, mining the image archive of popular culture to disclose its darker undertones. Simmons earned a BFA degree from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1988 and an MFA degree from the California Institute of the Arts in 1990. His first major exhibition was the 1993 edition of the Whitney Biennial, the so-called “political biennial” that disrupted the status quo of the survey exhibition by challenging its claim to race and gender neutrality. That year, the Biennial presented American art as an internally differentiated and contested social field. Amidst the cacophony, Gary Simmons defined his signature technique of “erasure drawing.” He covered a museum wall with broad strokes of blackboard paint, then made a mural-size line drawing with powdered white chalk, and finally wiped the whole surface with his hands to create an unstable, ghostly image that he called Wall of Eyes. Simmons intended the partial erasure as a statement on the politics of racial perception and identity in America, where memories of slavery, the civil rights movement, and personal experiences of discrimination fade into history—though not completely. America’s past continues to haunt the present and fuels the ongoing fight for political freedom and social equality.
Simmons’s imagery has become synonymous with progress, as in his Subtlety of a Train Wreck (1998), in which the steam locomotive is doubled back on itself in a collision of optimism and indignation. He extracts other images from the history of television, film, and music. More recently, Simmons has developed an interest in architecture as an embodied image, exploring the psychophysical layers, barriers, and channels of the historical imagination.
For the 56th Biennale di Venezia’s All the World’s Futures, Simmons has designed the architecture in which his new series of wall drawings is presented. A House Divided (2015), built as three separate modular rooms, references a mid-twentieth-century modern residence. During the course of the Biennale, each room will be deconstructed and stacked in piles on the floor or leaned against the walls and metal columns of the Artiglierie. The house’s modular construction and deconstruction is a metaphor for the structural integrity of memory, demonstrating that the past can and will be reconstituted and reconfigured as a new experience of the future.