A Sailcloth’s Soul: Danny Simmons

Throughout the history of American modernism there have always been self-taught,  trained, mid-career and emerging artists in the periphery. Their fertile ideological intersections have shaped the narrative of  American visual culture for centuries. Within this narrative classism and white supremacy coexist as a language understood by its prey, but not comprehended by its perpetrators.  This makes it difficult to explain the social and economic disease of classism and white supremacy, to those who lack the personal experience of it. And yet the psychological and genetic effect  of this disease continues to be replicated within the collective activity of artists, dealers, collectors, curators, critics, appraisers and academia. The art work of Danny Simmons engages audiences to  examine the various mutations of this disease that afflicts identity and community in order to confront the crucial movement toward the ultimate cure— one humanity for many nations and tribes to know one another. 

How Dare You, Danny Simmons

Currently  inclusion, diversity , equity and access have become critical priorities  for the arts and culture communities in North America. The changing demographics  require new intellectual voices and cultural sensibilities at decision making tables. Within corporate arenas, in order to  ensure profitable quarter summaries, they coined business vernacular like ‘diversity and inclusion’ to shape the spirit of  diversity to strategically earmark women, Black, Latin X and LGBTQ communities in global and transnational markets for their products and services.  

 An  essential part of reaching   these audiences, in both sectors,  is educating and exposing current decision makers to divergent thought processes that shape broader definitions for  value, identity, community, and participation. But, what does that really mean and look like? Perhaps the best analogy is described by Dr. Johnetta Cole, Ex Officio President of Spelman College, in which she likens diversity, equity, access and  inclusion to an invitation to a dance. She states, “ Diversity is when everybody is invited to the dance. Equity is when there are no special invitations to the dance because everyone gets one. Access is when everyone comes to the dance and accommodations are made to ensure their participation.  And, inclusion, is when everybody is asked to the dance according to the music of their choosing.”

The most consistent  invitation to ‘the dance’ comes from artists.  They represent society’s visual conscience within the  private vistas of their intellectual and cultural aesthetic.  Their statements reflect simple universal complexities that shape a lifetime of values, hopes, dreams, challenges and triumphs.  

Danny Simmons is hosting  today’s dance for a global currency in Alone Together at the  George Billis  Gallery in Chelsea.  He is an autodidact  multimedia artist based in Philadelphia.  His perspective as a painter, printmaker, poet, novelist, producer, community  builder, teacher and self-proclaimed hippie is ever present in his work. Perhaps being a politically astute hippie during the  1960’s can be likened to a Jungian dream cycle in which a rigid dominant culture was unable to contain the demands for greater individual freedom. Like his contemporaries through  extreme deviation he was able to break away from the social constraints of previous decades of social norms about clothing, music, drugs, sexuality, education, formalism, flamboyance and social order. 

By the 1970’s he witnessed the  reformulation of ‘otherness’ in the wake of civil rights, Black Power, feminism, gay  liberation, simultaneous to Southern black vernacular art receiving belated recognition as a major contributor to  American culture. This intensified his commitment to community development through art, education and social justice.     

During the  1980’s the conservative politics  of President Ronald Reagan held sway as the  Berlin Wall crumbled, new computer technologies emerged,  Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ echoed decadence; aids activism began to save lives, MTV shaped pop culture, Hip Hop surfaced and significant collections of African American art increased.  Sampling in music bled into the fine art world in which borrowing, copying and altering pre-existing images and ‘modern art’ were redefined by neo-conceptualism which embraced photographic appropriation and  neo expressionism in painting, utilized an expansive range of mixed media techniques. 

The  1990’s  was a fairly calm decade that ushered in the radical  era of communication through the internet for business and entertainment, popularity of celebrity culture, the emergence of  art biennials and fairs, including the National Black Fine Art Show, the first fair to feature galleries devoted to presenting Black artists.  Thematically globalism was the focus for institutions and artists which sparked hot debates about race, sexuality and multiculturalism, as evidenced in the  controversial 1993 Whitney Biennial curated by Thelma Golden, John G. Hanhardt, Lisa Philips and Elisabeth Sussman.

Many of the issues raised  in the 1993 Whitney Biennial spilled into the first  decade of the 21st century  amplifying the impact of   globalization. The accelerating  interconnectivity and communication of information through technology, compressing time and space, provides a multifaceted understanding to  how images participate in the construction of identity, gender, class, power, and other social and political values. 

Deep Desire by Danny Simmons

Currently, Simmons is  paying attention to the rethinking of ‘otherness’ during a Trump presidency.  Focusing on specific individuals – black, brown, immigrant and non-Christian people – grappling with  deep-rooted contradictions in social, political and economic policies, veiled in variations of violence and institutional apartheid.  This is contrasted by art institutions and collectors who are ferociously clambering to fill the historic and aesthetic gaps in their American  collections to conceal their abiding history of ‘black art accession disorder’. They created a legacy that excluded meritorious art produced by American artists of  African descent based on preconceived pseudo-scientific definitions, that Black people were incapable of producing fine art because of the erroneous classification as  sub-human, unintelligent, monkey-like breeders, only good for physical labor to justify slavery in America.

Simmons’s new body of work leads the focus on  the cultural production of self-taught and trained artists without distinction or apology because  of the pressing themes addressing identity, social issues, the environment and Black consciousness.  Throughout the arch of Simmons epoch historical references, he continues to ask quintessential and familiar questions  about human existence: Who am I? What is my purpose? How am I related to the world? How is the world related to me? Am I being true to my values? Do politics impact the answer to our humanity? Why do we have to be alone, together?

Danny Simmons paints in a small soundless studio  in contrast to many artists who work with loud music  in larger spaces. It has taken thirty years to define his vision and hone his aesthetic beyond the artists he has studied.   Time taught him how to detach himself from distinct memories and experiences, without amputating elements of a life well lived. This does not mean that a cacophony of silence is void of the universal impact music has on the human psyche like the folk music of Odetta and Nina Simone, the psychedelic rock of  Jimi Hendrix, the cool jazz of Miles Davis and the urgency from hip hop’s Public Enemy. Quiet solitude enables him to embrace self-awareness to examine the existential core of being human in contemplation of a universal truth. Like Yoda he becomes one with the internal process of his practice which frees him from distracting strictures of class, race, gender and history. This is the focus of Simmons current body of work- humanity- which for him is born from knowing oneself in order to see others. 

Simmons is not a social realist.   Using abstraction as a mirror like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of  Dorian Gray,  Simmons  addresses human complexity shaped  by the mortal ego’s worst attributes of power, materialism, envy and greed.  He uses abstraction to distance himself from literal racial artistic language, as well as, stereotypes about  self-taught black artists. Like Norman Lewis, his concern with race and systemic racism is symbolically juxtaposed  with bold black and white brush strokes. In Unknown, Simmons’s black, white, beige and red orbs represent the audience as  different tribes struggling to coexist in one world. 

His examination of  inclusion, diversity, equity  and access through shape, line, color  and form begs the answers to: How can we overcome  ego that drives the disease of “I am better and more entitled and worthy than you?”  Comparable to life, viewers are embraced and deceived by the allure of the arresting color in his work to deliberately provoke personal  inquiry about self and how we can better navigate, witness, cooperate and change the world….together. 

In  Requiem for Headhunter Simmons is searching for his primordial identity and asking the viewer if he/she/they  know their identity. Not as an American, a believer, a man, a woman, a spouse, a parent, an artist, a sibling, a partner, or a friend.  He is searching for the archetypal parity of being a human being. The Requiem for  the Headhunter  is “ Use your head to find your true self”, which  resonates with the forty-year-old United Negro College Fund Scholarship slogan, ‘A Mind is  A Terrible Thing to Waste. The new slogan is ‘A Mind is A Terrible Thing to Waste but a Wonderful  Thing to Invest in. Invest in Better Futures. Requiem for Headhunter is looking for a better future for everyone. 

 In How Dare You coexistence can be harmonious, contentious and separate while being  intertwined and parallel. Simmons is questioning why we are still struggling with being able to respectfully agree to  disagree? Why aren’t we treating one another with mutual regard and compassion? He creates a distinct abstract language of color and  mark making inspired by his admiration for Wilfredo Lam, Norman Lewis, Achille Gorky, Afro-Cobra, and Aboriginal art to express his ideas.  

African art forms  are particularly relevant to  Simmons’ aesthetic as part of an understanding of  self and empowerment. “The backdrop of my work is African  because all of humanity emanated from Africa.” In This Deep Desire, a limited edition quadratych is comprised of four different distinct interchangeable prints. Each manifests  vibrant abstractions as vivid expressions that create geometric patterns of primordial imaginations.  

In Secluded Omo, Simmons embraces process-based work in which he treats the canvas  as a textile. He uses bright primary colors and complexity with biomorphic forms  that emphasize lyrical color and personal content. Like Wilfredo Lam, Simmons use of  African abstraction in line and form combined with Aboriginal dots to provide reference to spiritual  secrets that are always ever present and often undiscernible to the naked eye. 

Inasmuch as his work is intersected with abstract messages about humanity gleaned from the necessity of  being ‘woke’ in the world, the atmosphere of the paintings in this show is joyful and energetic. In Borders his mark making is visibly integrating  bold, thick, smooth shapes and layered splatters.  Simmons’s work presents a window into the psyche of humanity by way of  asymmetrical, symmetrical, sometimes lopsided and overlapping compositions . The nuance of difference and conflict is an  abstraction in itself, which is why addressing the shortcomings of society requires critical reassessment that exceeds superficial buzz words and band aids. These complementary, contrasting and harmonious iterations of togetherness reflect individual differences,  that when joined together, represent a hopeful and better future for humanity.

The George Billis Gallery’s guest curator, Robin King asserts, Alone Together is about  breaking down the walls  that society puts around us and the boxes we arrogantly put others in. I want us to  recognize that in our differences there is strength and within our uniqueness is our commonality.  I am interested in the conversation that builds the world anew, where we can recognize and extol our differences to celebrate and respect them. Danny Simmons work does this.”

Halima Taha, Writer, Art & Culture Strategist and Author of  Collecting  African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas 

c tahathinksllc/halimataha 2019

Danny Simmons Alone Together Exhibition September 3-28, 2019 at George Billis Gallery

 525 W 26th St, 7th floor, New York, NY 10001 * (212) 645-2621 * Contact: Robin King

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For more than twenty years, Halima Taha continues to contribute to the field as an appraiser, art advisor, educator, and speaker. Author of best-selling book, Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas (Crown, 1/99 and Verve Editions 1/05) and Three Decades of American Printmaking: the Brandywine Collection (Hudson Hills Press, 10/04), Halima is a highly sought media personality and consultant.Her experience includes her leadership as an arts advocate and spokesperson, lecturer, former Managing Director and Art Gallery Owner, specializing in 20th Century art and photography. She has broad experience in every facet of the art world. Interested in project-based work including project management, strategic planning, collection management and contributing to exhibition catalogs and books. She is an adjunct member of the Bloomfield College faculty.

Specialties: African American visual culture and Photography

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