And I Say, Brother Had A Very Good Day, One Halo
It takes a moment to absorb the staggering dimensions of the nearly two dozen sculptures spread across Arthur Simms’ exhibition at Martos Gallery. Quite literally looming large, these hulking forms make up the bulk of “And I Say, Brother Had A Very Good Day, One Halo,” a succinct survey of Jamaican-born, New York City–based Simms’ practice since the late 1980s that also marks his first show with the gallery. Throughout, their wildly varied sizes and shapes, united by jagged silhouettes, scraggy textures and earthy-neutral color schemes—dominated by a raw umber tinge that steeps the atmosphere—lends to the impression of a boulder-strewn terrain somewhere far from civilization.
On closer inspection, however, the material basis of these structures would indicate anything but. Suspended in shells of densely layered hemp rope or interlaced metal wire are troves of motley found objects, hidden like secrets—a skateboard, toy horses, glass bottles, tires, motors and knives are just a sampling of what’s visible.
For Simms, each construction brims with personal narratives. The general format of these large-scale assemblages takes after the chockablock carts he remembers watching merchants roll off to markets in Kingston, Jamaica, where his family lived until he was 7 prior to settling in New York. As a professional artist, Simms has handily deployed this template to conjure the intangible, fundamental qualities he associates with significant moments, people and places from throughout his life.
Encompassing tires, wheels and “metal objects” while cocoon-like nubs of rope—some embedded with screws—stick out of the top like fists, Icema and Chester (1989–92) is meant to symbolize his parents. Likewise, And He Passes (1993)—featuring bells, glass bottles, a lightbulb and more that hang like Christmas ornaments off of protrusions from its 6.5-by-6 foot frame—memorializes the painter and muralist David Fisch, Simms’ friend who died from AIDS in the early ’90s. That said, chronicling the array of items in either of these examples would prove an insurmountable challenge, as the rope bindings obscure the inner contents almost entirely. But do not be deterred from attempting to glimpse the objects anyway—if anything, the countless minute gaps among criss-crossing tendrils of rope are an invitation to do just that.
Of the more imposing selections on view, Hemp or If I Were a Bird (1991), containing a ladder ensnared in a web of rope, towers at nearly 8 feet tall. Yet it’s dwarfed by the largest one in the group: If I Could Fly, I Would Be A Boat (1994), which, at 7 feet high, stretches almost 5 yards in length. The piece’s slab-shaped hull carries architectural detritus from Simms’ old studio. Wheels, affixed like appendages to so many of these decidedly immobile monoliths, add a playfulness to the sculptures while driving home the surreal undercurrents running through Simms’ practice.
Around the mid-1990s, Simms traded in the rope “skins”—as he describes his sculptures’ sheathing—for metal wires, while his assemblages made after the millennium express themselves through drastically smaller dimensions. At times, they even take a figurative turn. At the center of Boy (2007) is a pair of roller skates perched upright on a wooden base; from either shoe extends a tower of glass bottles that, held in place with a wire mesh, mimics the curvature of a human’s lower leg.
About a dozen two-dimensional mixed-media works made since 2019 consist of multiple tiers that cascade down or across the gallery’s walls. That is, save for one, Arthur and Lucy, Parts One and Two (2020)—which refers to Simms and the artist Lucy Fradkin, his wife—that dangles from the ceiling. Here, Simms’ chosen materials veer into the hyper-personal: it includes photographs and hair collected from both subjects. The format, inspired by Aboriginal art, gives rise to an enigmatic and ephemeral mode of storytelling that’s at once elegant in its simplicity.
Over the nearly four decades of his career, Simms has built a practice that yields visually and semiotically complex works—arising out of his relentless exploration and expansion of assemblage as a narrative tool. Each piece becomes a unique vessel that likewise captures a unique history, indexing the personal not only as a matter of subjective experience, but also in where it intersects with the cultural: that is, in the physical objects left behind along the way. —Rachel Small
Arthur Simms, Cross, Black Jesus Entering Jerusalem, 1997. Wood, wire, toy horses, screws, nails, motor, bamboo, stone, found objects, 67 × 57 × 25 inches.