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Contemporary commentary

ArtWeek features Gary Simmons and other impactful contemporary artists

Anna Meyer
Jeffrey Gibson's 'The Spirits Are Laughing' flag.
Courtesy Aspen Art Museum

Looking at a chalkboard — erased, but still marred by the smudges of writing that used to fill it — memory may not be the first thing that comes to one’s mind. But it is for Aspen Award of Art recipient Gary Simmons.

His signature “erasure technique” touches on the subjective nature of memories and the way that they are — or are not — erased. Simmons first got the idea for the technique while doing research for a film he wanted to make. In his research, Simmons came across a lot of cartoon imagery related to historical events. Examining the different cartoon representations, he realized that many of them were quite offensive, although the way that they are remembered varies greatly depending on the audience; it is essentially broken down along racial lines, according to Simmons. In the same way that a chalkboard is rarely truly clean once erased, the legacy of racism is still omnipresent in today’s world.

“It’s really about attempting to erase stereotypes,” Simmons said. “I think that stereotypes have certain ghosts that are with us all the time. Those traces and those ghosts that are left are kind of blurry.”



Gary Simmons’ signature erasure technique.
Courtesy Aspen Art Museum

To achieve the smudged effect, Simmons draws on the chalkboard surface, then smudges it by hand. Simmons does not plan out the smudging; instead, he takes an organic approach, allowing it to spontaneously unfold.

“My work hovers between representation and abstraction, and I think erasure is where that kind of blurring takes place that calls on the viewers to fill in those gaps, or those disappearing points in the images,” he said.




Simmons hopes that his work will spark conversations about memory and interpretations of history.

“An artist’s job is to really ask tough questions and not so much give the answers — to provide avenues for people to access different issues through their own experiences,” Simmons said. “There is no answer that I’m after, but I am trying to set up certain kinds of boundaries for that kind of idea exchange to go on.”

The concept of divergent collective memory is a recurring theme in Simmons’ work. Similar to the way that each person sees colors differently, each individual recalls an event in a different way, according to Simmons.

“There are no true actual memories of an event,” he said. “I think we all shape those things in our own experience.”

When starting a project, Simmons focuses on places that are hubs of collective memory. His last project used public schools’ cafeteria tables, which he took apart and refabricated parts of, introducing drawings and graffiti-esque imagery. The cafeteria served as a provocative location, due to its role as a “hive of interaction,” Simmons said.

Part of what brought the discrepancy of memory to light for Simmons were conversations about school with former classmates. Simmons realized that they did not all remember things the same way. Even when Simmons was still in school, art was always important to him — it has been a significant part of Simmons’ life since he was a child.

“I had two great loves when I was very young: art and playing sports. They both came very naturally to me, and I excelled at an early age at that,” Simmons said.

Simmons was on the path to becoming a professional athlete, but after sustaining an injury that prevented him from playing sports, he fully immersed himself in the world of art. 

“Art was really my secret love anyway,” Simmons said. “From the time I was very little, it’s all I ever wanted to do all the time, so it was an easy moment to pivot from playing on the field to working in the studio.”

Simmons has always cherished the time he spends working alone in his studio.

“I love being alone, but I don’t like being lonely,” Simmons said. “I don’t think the two are necessarily tied together. There’s real value in spending time with yourself and thoughts and really thinking critically through ideas that you’re interested in.”

While Simmons enjoys his time in solitude with his art, he is excited to spend time in Aspen to receive his award.

“There’s a lot of very strong ties, almost family there,” Simmons said.

Simmons will be honored with the Aspen Award of Art for his abstract minimalist representation art next week. The award was established “to recognize an artist who has made exemplary contributions to the global dialogue on contemporary art,” according to the press release for the event. The award is part of a series of events that will take place Aug. 1-6 for the Aspen Art Museum’s second annual ArtWeek. 

The week also features private collection visits, conversations with artists, an art auction and artist performances. It begins with an opening party co-hosted by Prada and culminates in the annual ArtCrush summer gala honoring Simmons on Aug. 5.

On Aug. 3, Jeffrey Gibson showcases his performance, titled “The Spirits Are Laughing.” Gibson’s work references various aesthetic and material histories of indigenous cultures, including his own, as well as modern subcultures. The performance features 15 color guard performers twirling flags designed by Gibson, along with a speaking performance at Anderson Park Meadow located on the Aspen Institute’s campus.

If you go …

What: Aspen ArtWeek

Hosted by: Aspen Art Museum

Focus: Honoring artists whose creativity and vision have significantly impacted contemporary art.

When: Aug. 1-6

Aug. 1: Collection visit with Darlene and Jorge Perez, in partnership with Intersect Art Fair, 10 a.m.; private collection visit and lunch with Sterling McDavid, in partnership with Cultured and Kavi Gupta, noon (both locations shared after registration)

Aug. 2: Aspen ArtWeek Welcome Party, 5 p.m. Aspen Art Museum

Aug. 3: Artist breakfast and tour of ArtCrush auction exhibition, 10:30 a.m., Aspen Art Museum rooftop; Eddie Rodolfo Aparicio in conversation with Suzanne Hudson, 3 p.m. (same location); ‘The Spirits Are Laughing,’ 7 p.m. Anderson Park Meadow at the Aspen Institute (free and open to the public; registration required)

Aug. 4: Artist honoree talk: Gary Simmons, 4 p.m. Aspen Art Museum rooftop; ‘Together,’ A Ghost Cinema Performance, 8 p.m. private residence.

Aug. 5: ArtCrush Gala honoring Gary Simmons, 6 p.m. After p arty featuring DJ Naka.

More info: aspenartmuseum.org

Aspen Art Museum
Courtesy Aspen Art Museum
Jeffrey Gibson’s ‘The Trees Are Witnesses’ flag.
Courtesy Aspen Art Museum
Gary Simmons’ erasure art.
Courtesy Aspen Art Museum

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