President Obama’s New Print: Gary Simmons’ ‘Starlite Theatre’
New York-based artist Gary Simmons is represented in major collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C., and the Walker Art Center in Minnesota—and as of this summer, the collection of President Obama. In his enigmatic chalkboard works, Simmons has been known to examine historical and racial depictions in media. The etching that entered the presidential collection, Starlite Theatre (2012), is named for a 1950s drive-in theater in Dallas that was known for welcoming black customers. Rich cultural narratives and imagery, like this reference to the Civil Rights era, and a visual affinity to blurred film screens characterize Simmons’ artistic output.
Regarding his pieces that employ chalkboards or slate walls as a surface, Simmons has said that they “started out exploring different pedagogical issues, school, learning, teaching,” and “voiced the absence of a voice.” Beginning with cartoonish, figurative imagery, over time these works, in the artist’s words, “slipped into an abstraction.” In All Work And No Play, (2012) a color aquatint etching, Simmons makes a reference to Jack Nicholson’s lines in Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film, The Shining, by printing the English proverb three times over before smearing it out, as if it were erased. In Double Swing Hallway, (2012) he takes a still of a swinging chandelier from Hitchcock’s The Shining, and repeats it as a ghostly double print.
Simmons’ fascination with horror movies is intertwined with his interest in historical theaters and cinema—particularly the implications based on race and class that films convey through their characters. The contrast between both the white of the chalk and the dark background are thought to represent cultural friction, while the erasure could suggest histories that have been blotted out. Simmons explains, “The chalkboard provides a space for me to provide an undercurrent of the work; the politics will always be there but it doesn’t always have to be so present as it was earlier on.”