Screaming into the Ether
Active since the late 1980s, Gary Simmons has built an internationally-recognized and critically-lauded practice that takes to task the insidious ways in which American culture propagates racial stereotypes. For the 20 new paintings on view in “Screaming into the Ether,” the New York-born, Los Angeles-based artist resurrected the main cartoon characters from Looney Tunes’ “Bosko” series, which aired in the 1930s: Bosko, his “Little Sister,” and Honey, his girlfriend. The trio’s appearance and mannerisms, flagrantly drawing on the tradition of minstrel shows, reduced Black people to caricatures. After the civil rights movement, in 1969 the franchise resurfaced internally at United Artists, which had acquired the Warner Bros. archive from around the “Bosko” era, and ultimately included it among the ‘Censored Eleven,’ a now-infamous collection of animated features deemed too racially offensive for public release.
To revive the stars of “Bosko”—that is, on his terms—Simmons initially captured each cartoon’s historically-accurate likeness in oil paint before enacting his signature “erasure” technique across the canvases—a process of gently blurring the images with his hands. The aftermath reveals the characters as eerie, spectral-like shadows of their former, Looney Tunes-designed selves; with this, the smudged tracks of pigment made by Simmons’s physical “erasure” gestures materialize around the figures like electrically-charged auras. As it were, these unsettling results manifest an apt visual metaphor for the ways that racist artifacts can linger on in collective imagination, memories, and culture.
Gary Simmons, Screaming Into The Ether, 2020. Oil and cold wax on canvas, 96 1/4 x 72 1/4 inches.