Improvisatory and yet obsessive, Arthur Simms’s sculptures manifest the intensity of his process. His work is provocative, compelling, hard to look at—and at least part of its power comes from his drive to make such fierce, volatile, and demanding objects. Simms’s transformative impulse embodies Levi-Strauss’s concept of the “raw and the cooked,” the dichotomy, and constant mediation, between the natural world and the world of culture. Despite the evident sophistication, the work is raw and highly metaphorical: profound, primal, and self-revealing. It gives the impression of an unhinged wildness tempered by a compulsive attention to craft. Jamaican-born Simms references outsider art, traditional handcrafts, the DIY impulses necessary for survival in poor countries, and the mechanisms of oppression. He has said that his work is “about the African Diaspora; the movement of Black people throughout history and personal metaphors for my departure from Jamaica.”
“The Miracle of Burano” (on view through April 29, 2023) is a mini-retrospective featuring three decades of sculptural work. One of the oldest and largest pieces, Chester, Alice, Marcia, Erica And Arthur Take A Ride (1993), foretells Simms’s subsequent body of work. Standing 85 inches high, it incorporates a milk crate as a pedestal, with skeins of rope revealing the wooden support structure and exposing numerous small, interior objects resting on the crate. The most recent work, Junkanoo (2022), conjoins a toy car, wood, a great deal of shiny wire, and a toy giraffe. Simms has used wheels and toy cars in many pieces, including Carnival (2005), Red Cooper (2004), and Caged Bottle (2006); the idea of a mobile sculpture or of arrested motion is characteristic of his work. His process mirrors the technique of remix—adding to and editing found objects, recombining cultural detritus. Repetitive wrapping or binding, as he calls it, surrounds various objects with rope or wire to such an extent that they become barely recognizable or completely hidden, almost mummified, within multiple networks of knotted, intersecting skeins. Yet where the skeins open up, it is possible to just make out the identity of the objects tied up within them. As Simms explains, “I’m drawing with the rope obsessively until it becomes a sort of skin over all these various things that are on the inside.”
Simms is compelled by the street and its artifacts, by a fascination with the found object. His sources and influences are omnivorous and multi-national, combining art historical knowledge with elements from African, Jamaican, Asian, Aboriginal, and Native American cultures—his work expresses the ways that cultures chafe against each other. As Simms states on his website, his work is based on the concept of assemblage and also inspired by Duchamp’s readymades and Surrealism’s use of disjunction. In these deeply poetic works laden with metaphor and associative references, Simms joins in an aesthetic shared by a number of contemporary Black American sculptors, among them Nari Ward, Betye Saar, Noah Purifoy, Nick Cave, and Willie Cole.