Comments Off on Arthur Simms and the Skin of Disparate Objects
When the artist Arthur Simms was barely four, in 1965, his mother left their home in Kingston, Jamaica, for the United States to support her family as an au pair. Arthur, his father and his three sisters trod on in Kingston until they could join her in New York a few years later. The in-between years of his childhood in the Caribbean were like a dream that Simms remembers fondly because they set the stage for what was to come.
He was learning from Kingston’s artisans who, rather than buy a cart to use in the market, fashioned ones from wheels and boxes. Simms began to make little objects out of found materials — wood, plastic, ropes, metals — he used as toys.
“Jamaica might not be a wealthy country,” Simms, 61, said during a recent interview at his studio on Staten Island, where he lives and works. “But the people, man, they’ve got soul. They made things with their hands.”
Now, with two concurrent shows recently opened across two countries — a survey with work spanning more than three decades at Karma Gallery in Los Angeles and site-specific installations at a deconsecrated church in Cremona, Italy — it’s finally clear how much Simms’s enigmatic drawings and encompassing assemblages owe to his origins.
Simms said he thought of himself as an artist as early as second grade, in Brooklyn, where his mother’s boss — who was also, by a stroke of luck, an immigration lawyer — helped the family relocate. It was the days of the Apollo mission, the race to the moon, and imaginations of space hovered above every conversation. A classmate had drawn a spaceship. “My teacher at the time said, ‘this kid is an artist,’ ” Simms said. “And he handed him some pencils and crayons. I thought to myself, I can get with that — it looks like something I can do.”
By high school, he was taking long walks from his home in Crown Heights to the Brooklyn Museum, where he would purchase art supplies and reproduce portraits by the legendary artists on the walls — Rembrandt, Goya — replacing their faces with his own. While a student at Brooklyn College, he showed one of the paintings, based on Goya’s “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington,” to the artist William T. Williams, his mentor, who taught him drawing and with whom he roamed SoHo galleries on field trips.
“Williams was kind,” Simms remembered. “He said my painting reminded him of Haitian painting traditions.” Yet Simms was unsatisfied: His colors were spare, and the work didn’t appear original. In 1985, he won a scholarship to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and began to experiment with objects again, as he had during childhood. “In Skowhegan I realized that it was sculptural ideas that came most easily to me,” he said. “So, I went with the flow.”
Yet form eluded him once again — until he decided to experiment with hemp rope. “And suddenly it made sense — it was like giving the sculpture a see-through skin,” he said. He showed these rope sculptures for the first time in his first solo show, and also his big break, in 1992, at the Philippe Briet Gallery in SoHo. It has become his signature, wrapped like mesh around the disparate objects he has collected for years, making his entire oeuvre appear to be the giant collection of a well-traveled fisherman, rescuing lost items from the sea.
More on Italy
“When you’re from an island in the Caribbean, the only news you get is from the sea,” said José Martos, owner of the Martos Gallery in Manhattan, where Simms had a solo exhibition in 2021. They were introduced by Marquita Flowers who, in 2019, showed six works by Simms at Shoot the Lobster, an intimate gallery on the Lower East Side, also belonging to Martos. “I was immediately hooked to his practice,” he recalled, “because it contained a clear understanding of art history balanced by a great sense of diplomacy, which is the only way you can have all these influences and still manage to keep things balanced.”
In “The Miracle of Burano,” the survey of Simms’s work at Karma, through April 29, many objects the artist collected are seen for the first time, most marvelously wound with hemp rope. There are pieces dealing with his personal experiences, like “Chester, Alice, Marcia, Erica and Arthur Take a Ride,” from 1993 — a sculpture in the form of a vessel, referencing his family’s journey from Jamaica to the U.S. His own interest in movement is accentuated by pieces in the show that have tires or wheels cleverly bound to them, or toy cars with wire, toy giraffes and brightly colored wood.