Xaviera Simmons: Underscore Curated by Amy Smith-Stewart September 22, 2013, to March 9, 2014
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Xaviera Simmons: Underscore Xaviera Simmons’s body of work spans photography, performance, video, sound, and installation. She defines her studio practice, which is rooted in an ongoing investigation of experience, memory, abstraction, present and future histories—specifically shifting notions surrounding landscape—as cyclical rather than linear. In other words, Simmons is committed equally to the examination of different artistic modes and processes; for example, she may dedicate part of a year to photography, another part to performance, and other parts to installation, video, and sound works—keeping her practice in constant and consistent rotation, shift, and engagement. The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of underscore is “to draw a line under: underline; to make evident: emphasize, stress; to provide (action on film) with accompanying music.”1 Simmons describes the impetus behind the exhibition as “process with an attention to aesthetics and beauty—as disorderly, random and natural as possible, using time as the method to navigate both the performer’s and the audience’s engagement, time is the tool.” 2 Here, Underscore examines how artists draw directly from the movements, subtitles, and concepts of other practitioners in order to produce work— making visible the rehearsal process of studio practice, with its ups, downs, and inbetweens. Through these processes and their evident evolution, Simmons shows us how
Horse, 2009 Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami
inspiration informs rehearsing and how its very unfolding gives birth to new expression in the culmination of the final work. This exhibition includes two large-scale photographs from the Untitled (Cape) series: Warm Leatherette (2009) and Horse (2009); the debut of a new slide installation, Into the Rehearsal (2013); and the premiere of a site-specific performance work, Number 17 (2013). These works as a totality underscore the experimental, improvisational, and the collaborative as critical systems of art practice, collapsing the artist/audience and artist/ performer dynamic to make evident the processes during and after the making. Warm Leatherette and Horse present the artist as simultaneous surveyor, photographer, actor, and musician. Simmons, whose personal vinyl record collection spans over 4,000 albums, has selected more than one hundred diverse record sleeves as the catalyst for these photographs. Staging characters in four distinct scenic locales, Simmons (re)places each character’s face with an LP cover, roughly the scale of a human head, depicting a known musician (here, Grace Jones and Stephanie Mills). Her performative action appropriates each of these iconic images as a site for reinvention. Simmons uses the landscape as the anchor for a temporary opportunity to construct a new character in a different idyllic and painterly scene, shifting perceptions of the sounds held within the record album itself, the artists who produced the works, and the audience/fan relationship to the images produced by these musicians. Through the construction of layered notions of self—using a multitude of tools and thereby also displacing our perception of time and space—these composed images add another critical dimension not only to the photographic practice of portraiture, but also to the methods used to convey poetics in portraiture. It should be noted here that in 2010 Simmons produced her own limited edition vinyl record titled Thundersnow Road, commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in conjunction with Merge Records, whereby the artist invited fifteen accomplished and emerging musicians to write new musical compositions to images she produced specifically for the purpose of inspiring an entire record album. Simmons plans to continue producing limited edition records as part of her studio practice, eventually having a greater hand in the sounds that are produced for the new albums. For Into the Rehearsal (2013), Simmons presents a collection of forty digitally manipulated low-res images and stills culled from Jamaican dance hall footage found online.3 Shown on a slide projector on a slow fade within an intentionally locked room, the images confront visitors with a visual archive of highly sexually charged bodies, viewed through a small aperture from a mediated distance. These images focus on a popular and controversial Jamaican form of dance called daggering, where dancers contort their bodies in hyperbolic positions to simulate sexual movement. For Simmons, the intent of this project lies not only in her interest in the bodies, movements, and historical relevance of this genre of dance, but most importantly on the very act of contemporary modes of collecting and archiving. Simmons has produced four previous bodies of work that address her method of collecting as it relates to photography and the artist’s archive. These include Superunknown (Alive in The) (2010), which put photography’s focus on the act of collecting and on migrants afloat in boats out on the deep ocean; Gain (2010), which held the gaze of the kill point between animals found in the wild; Hold Tight It’s Paradise (2011), which focuses on images of the during-moment and after-moment of destructive storms, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Adhering to a tight conceptual framework, the gathering and disintegrating of images, and an intensive subsequent photo-conditioning technique employed for each body of work, she collects and archives in order to produce a completely new work from the found digital image through to the final project. Here, Simmons uses the Internet as a research stimulant to initiate work that is inevitably tied as much to its subject matter as to the digital manipulation
processes and photographic software from which its final output is constructed. The inspiration for this project, she says, is her ongoing conversation with Gerhard Richter’s epic archive Atlas and Thomas Ruff’s JPEG series, which have influenced Simmons’s practice for many years. Simmons explains the genesis of her interest: “I was trained as a classical photographer under An My Le, Larry Fink, and Stephen Shore at Bard College and I was one of renowned fashion photographer Walter Chin’s assistants before that … in both cases I worked with traditional methods of photography, using film and medium- and large-format cameras…This way of working is extremely fulfilling, though rigid at times, and I needed to include digital processes, or what I refer to as modern-day processes, in my work, to complement living in the modern world with modern equipment and processes. I began my Internet archival project as a result of this desire, a need to construct images based on images already in existence, a desire to be present in the present moment with modern practices and to construct images based on the archival impulse; the impulse to collect and catalogue.”4 Number 17, the artist’s most complex endurance-based performance to date, presented over a five-hour period on opening day at The Aldrich, will transform the upstairs gallery into an active rehearsal/studio space, where the audience will confront acts of visual and sound construction by Simmons and two other performers.5 Witnesses to the performance will view a work in progress as Simmons makes visible the crescendos and diminuendos of self-generative modes of expression, from performance- and sound-based improvisation to process art modes and their diversions and intersections. Directly informed by postmodern avant-garde performance and theater techniques, improvisational sound art, endurance practices, and action painting, Number 17 reveals the build-ups, pauses, and breakdowns of a creative process, crossing disciplines to engage both the performer and the gallery audience in a process of time, sound, and ephemerality. To accomplish this, Simmons draws on a diversity of influences from a cross-generational list of art practitioners: the composer John Zorn’s eleven-minute monodrama at City Center, La machine l’être (The Machine of Being) (2011), with a riveting cameo performance by the soprano Anu Komsi; John Cage’s chance operations, his insistence on “sounds being themselves,”6and in particular the Number pieces, named after the number of performers in the works; artist Paul McCarthy’s stream of consciousness video performances; the experimental improvisation of jazz composer and musician Max Roach, especially the 1961 masterpiece “Garvey’s Ghost” by Roach, Abby Lincoln, and Eric Dolphy; the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock; and the abstract beauty of the Belgian choreographer and dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s seminal 7 piece, Violin Phase from Fase: Four movements to the Music of Steve Reich (1982). Following the performance directives of the score for Number 17, written by the artist, Simmons will transform the gallery at The Aldrich into a studio and sound stage. Over the duration of the “rehearsal” she will employ materials from paint to plaster to feathers— which will be organized on long tables—as well as various audio recording equipment, including a sound/audio improviser with a small amp, microphone and stand that will be used by the sound/movement artist. The third performer, the chance operator/system controller 8 (in other words, the performance’s emcee), will be stationary and will use sound, image, color, and number—among other things—while acting as a living signifier of the performance’s twists and turns. The walls of the “performance space” will be covered in unprimed canvas, the floor with quarter-inch plywood. A small film crew will encircle the performance area, focusing on the three performers. The audience will enter from two opposing ends, coming and going at will. The performance time will be marked by the expenditure of the materials used by the visual arts performer, the erosion of the
Sketch for Into the Rehearsal (detail), 2013 Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami
sound/movement artist’s vocal cords, and the tiring of all three performers’ physical bodies. As Simmons describes movements #5 and #6 in the score for Number 17: 5. The “performance” artist will engage in a continuous ritual of studio work/performance endurance with an assortment of materials ranging from paint, feathers, plaster, paper, and other such materials. 6. The “sound/movement” artist (s) will engage in their own form of onsite work/rehearsal.9 After the performance, video documentation will be presented on three screens in the gallery, along with the traces of the performers’ actions. The materials used during the performance’s duration will be evident on the tables, walls, and floor. Visitors will confront the aftermath of the work’s creation, the making, and its end result. The three plasma screens will act as stand-ins for the performers and will serve as both a document of the performance and, along with the installation, a work unto itself. Simmons’s installation takes the form of a Gesamtkunstwerk, recalling Jason Rhoades’s last monumental work before his death, Black Pussy (2006), and the celebrated Work Tables and Tischmatten (table mats) of Dieter Roth. Here, the traces of artistic processes, their residue and history, document not only the unfolding of the event over the tenure of the performance, but act as testament to the synergy of art, its production, immediate reception, and everlasting legacy. Taken as a whole, Simmons’s work utilizes time as its impetus and instigator, and through its (un)raveling, the awkward pauses and intense peaks, she creates an exhibition about enduring in real time. Amy Smith-Stewart, curator
Number 15, 2012 Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami
Works in the Exhibition All dimensions h x w x d in inches Horse, 2009 Color photograph 38 3/4 x 49 3/4 Warm Leatherette, 2009 Color photograph 60 1/4 x 74 3/4 Into the Rehearsal, 2013 Slide installation 40 color slides, slide projector, speakers, mic Dimensions variable Number 17, 2013 Site-specific performance with installation and post-performance video documentation Video, tables, and variable performance props Performers: Teresa Mora, Sound; Belinda Becker, Chance Dimensions variable Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami
Xaviera Simmons produces installations, sculptures, photographic, video, and performative works. She received a BFA from Bard College (2004) and in 2005 completed both an independent study program in studio art at the Whitney Museum and a two-year actor-training conservatory with the Maggie Flanigan Studio. Her major national and international exhibitions and performances include The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1, Nouveau Museum National de Monaco, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Public Art Fund, and SculptureCenter. Simmons’s awards include the David C. Driskell Prize, the Jerome Foundation Travel Fellowship, an Art Matters Fellowship, and a SmARTPower Fellowship. Her works are in major museum and private collections, including Deutsche Bank, UBS, the Guggenheim Museum, the Agnes Gund collection, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. She is a visiting critic and lecturer in the Graduate Department of Sculpture at Yale University, an artist-in-residence at Anderson Ranch, and a member of the Board of Directors of Spaceworks, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding the supply of affordable long-term workspace for arts practitioners in New York City.
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/underscore, August 2, 2013.
Author’s email conversation with the artist, July 15, 2013.
Simmons cites the landscape, history, and people of Jamaica as a great influence on her practice. Dancehall culture is a topic she regularly researches and engages.
From the author’s email conversation with the artist, July 15, 2013.
Please note that this text speaks in the future tense as the performance had yet to happen at the time the essay was written.
John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), p. 10.
De Keersmaeker recently performed Violin Phase (an excerpt from Fase) in the Atrium at The Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of the 2011 exhibition On Line: Drawing through the Twentieth Century.
“System controller” is a term Simmons chose for its links to Jamaican Sound and DJ culture. In addition to her art and performance practices, she has maintained a practice of DJ-ing for over ten years. Simmons is currently conducting research in order to better understand sound and plans to incorporate that research into a vinyl record/performance in 2014.
Excerpted from the artist’s original score for the performance piece.
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Warm Leatherette, 2009 Courtesy of the artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami
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