Installation view of “Arthur Simms: Chair with My Hair,” Kunst Museum St. Gallen, Switzerland, Feb. 10-July 7, 2024. Shown, from left, ARTHUR SIMMS, “Lucy Fradkin Meets John Delapa Or Gregor,” 1989-92 (rope, wood, glue, paint, metal and objects, 284 × 140 × 61 cm); “Mell,” 2003 (wood, rope, wire, wheels and plastic, 94 × 86 × 127 cm); and 17 works on paper (1990-2009), including some from Black Caravaggio series. | Courtesy Kunst Museum St. Gallen, Photo by Stefan Altenburger

 

THE ASSEMBLAGE WORKS of American artist Arthur Simms (b. 1961) are composed of found objects, hemp rope, and hair. The works explore Simms’s biography, reflect his transcultural experiences, and evince a sense of spirituality and cultural symbolism. Exactly what they are about is not easily deduced by the viewer, which makes the artist’s explanations of the works all the more fascinating.

Born in Saint Andrews, Jamaica, Simms spent his early childhood years in Kingston and moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 7. Currently, he lives and works on Staten Island, N.Y. More than two decades ago, Simms organized the first and only Jamaica Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001. A year later, he won the Rome Prize (2002-03) and his time at the American Academy in Rome was transformative. Simms honed his knowledge of Renaissance art, started referencing medieval halos his work, and incorporated his hair for the first time in a major body of work, a series of drawings titled Black Caravaggio.

It’s been a banner few years for Simms. Martos Gallery in New York presented a 30-year survey of the artist in 2021. The following year he was featured in the 2022 Kingston Biennial. In 2023, “Arthur Simms: The Miracle of Burano” at Karma gallery was the artist’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. The show coincided with “Arthur Simms: I Am The Bush Doctor, One Halo,” an installation of works at a decommissioned church in Cremona, Italy. Also in 2023, an expansive interview with the artist, conducted by David Scott, the lead curator of the Kingston Biennial, was published in BOMB magazine.

His latest exhibition is the most comprehensive of his career. “Arthur Simms: Chair with My Hair” is on view at Kunst Museum St. Gallen in Switzerland, through July 7. The retrospective features more than 60 sculptures and works on paper produced over the past four decades.

 


Installation view of ARTHUR SIMMS, “Neptune,” 2023 (bamboo, wood, wheelbarrow, rope, screws, agricultural tool, metal, 170 × 230 × 85 cm); In background, “Lord Brynner And The Wailers,” 1999 (ink, yarn, button, glassine, frame, 125 × 81.3 cm). | © Arthur Simms, Photo by Stefan Altenburger

 

When “Chair With My Hair” opened a few months ago, Simms walked through the exhibition with curator Gianni Jetzer and narrated some of the works—discussing their meaning, symbolism, and backstories; how they came together; and the origins of some of the materials. Of course, all art is open to the viewer’s interpretation, but the insights Simms shared about his intentions are particularly eye-opening and shed light on the life experiences from which they emerged:

    On a hemp rope-based sculpture, a self-portrait called ‘Mell’

    Mell is my nickname. If you know any Jamaicans, most Jamaicans have two names. They have their formal name which is mine, which is Arthur, and then they have their family name that everybody calls them, including their cousins and and mine is Mel. The reason why I got that nickname, it was after the sprinter in Jamaica. Jamaica is known for many things and one of the things, the main thing that it’s known for are the runners right? Who’s the fastest man in the world? Who has the record? Where is he from? Jamaica. Usain Bolt, right? So the tradition goes back for for many decades and there were these two twin brothers, Mell and Maul, who became national heroes. They won medals in the Olympics in the 1950s. So I was named after Mel. M-e-l-l. (The sprinter’s name is actually “Mel.”) And when I was in Rome, you know, which was very impactful for me… I created this portrait of myself. The interesting thing about this piece is I didn’t use any nails or screws to help to bind it together. It’s probably the only piece that I made that’s bound together only by pressure.

    On how he came to use his own hair in his work

    Lots of cultures if you study history, world history, art history, there are lots of cultures, throughout the world, that use hair in the work. Asian cultures and African cultures is where I got the use of the hair. I first started in the mid-1980s and back then I would go to barbershops and get other people’s hair and it didn’t work for me, right? So when I go to Rome we live Lucy and I (his wife, artist Lucy Fradkin) live in Rome for a year and… I was doing these drawings that are based on these drawings that I started in the late 80s early 90s and I started including postcards of the great baroque artist Caravaggio. I was very inspired by him, his use of light, the figures, the gesture, the drama of it really inspired me. So I was using that as an indication of the location of where I was at, you know, indigenous art from the baroque and it in Rome in Italy. And then I needed an identifier to say, “Oh this is me, the Jamaican, the African American, the African diasporan,” and that’s when I started using my hair and then it just worked for me.

I needed an identifier to say, “Oh this is me, the Jamaican, the African American, the African diasporan,” and that’s when I started using my hair and then it just worked for me. — Arthur Simms

 


Installation view of “Arthur Simms: Chair with My Hair,” Kunst Museum St. Gallen, Switzerland, Feb. 10-July 7, 2024. Shown, foreground, ARTHUR SIMMS, “Shark,” 2023 (helmet, guitar, bamboo, stones, wire, 104 × 161 × 77 cm). | Courtesy Kunst Museum St. Gallen, Photo by Stefan Altenburger

 
    On getting his hair cut in an Italian barbershop

    Just a little aside. I was going to tell a story about when I decided to use my hair. I had to go to a barber in Rome. So, you know, at the Academy, they recommend places to go. They recommended this barber. You walk up the Janiculum up the hill and I said, “Lucy, you come with me,” ‘cuz her Italian was better than mine, still better than mine. So we go to this guy, right, and we go in and the guys look and I sit down in the chair and the guy’s never cut Black hair before. So he’s like he’s trying this, he’s trying that, he’s trying that. He’s kind of freaking out, freaking out, and then he tried one, “Oh yeah, yeah, that one works.” Then he starts cutting and he’s talking to me in Italian. Lucy’s listening. I say something to Lucy. She say to him, and then you know Lucy would go back [with] me every every time when I went to get my haircut. At a certain point, she stopped going and I would go by myself and when I come in the door, he’s like, “Oh Arthur, Arthur.” He was really happy. At the end of the residency, I did a Black Caravaggio drawing with my hair and gave it to him. He was beside himself. He put it in a place in the barbershop.

    On the massive blocks featured in the exhibition’s title work, ‘Chair with My Hair’

    The making of this piece actually started in September, when Giani first invited Lucy and I to come to Saint Gallen. He organized these trips that we would go on with Lorenz and with Oliver and one of them was to a rope factory and one of them was to a recycling plant. (Lorenz Wiederkehr and Oliver Meier, serve as research assistant and technical manager, respectively, at the museum.) In this recycling plant there are these stacks of crushed cans and crushed plastic bottles. I was drawn to the crushed cans. They were just amazing objects, you know, look at the speckle of color that comes off of them. And they also have a lot of Coca-Cola bottles in them, right? My dad worked for Coca-Cola the last year we were in Jamaica and then when we went to New York to Brooklyn, he got a job in a factory working for a Coca-Cola plant and that’s what sustained the family, you know, until he retired. So it’s a cultural object. It’s a personal object for me.

 

Throughout the exhibition storytelling abounds, embedded in the works, the materials, and the presentation itself. Simms reflected on working with the museum team and Fradkin to revisit and consider elements of certain works and how they are arranged until they felt right in the space. Despite the fact that he has developed precise diagrams indicating the placement and orientation of each installation, he made decisions in the moment, prioritizing the look and feel on site, rather than the dictation of a document.

Later this month, Simms will be featured in “191st Annual: Academy Style,” the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design. (Simms was elected to the Academy in 2022.) The New York show is billed as “the longest-running serial exhibition of contemporary art and architecture in the United States.” This year’s edition will be on view at the Academy’s new building in Chelsea and will be the first annual held in-person since 2015. Opening June 20, the exhibition includes 117 National Academicians. CT

 

“Arthur Simms: Chair with My Hair” is on view at Kunst Museum St. Gallen, Switzerland, from Feb. 10-July 7, 2024

 

FIND MORE about Arthur Simms on his website

READ MORE about Arthur Simms in New York Times profile by Yinka Elujoba, and BOMB magazine interview conducted by David Scott, both published in 2023

 


Feb. 10, 2024: Artist Arthur Simms walked through “Chair with My Hair” with curator Gianni Jetzer and narrated some of the works. | Video by Kunst Museum St.Gallen

 


Installation view of “Arthur Simms: Chair with My Hair,” Kunst Museum St. Gallen, Switzerland, Feb. 10-July 7, 2024. Shown, far left, ARTHUR SIMMS, “Icema and Chester,” 1989-92 (rope, wood, glue, paint, wheels, Xres and metal, objects, 206 × 178 × 117 cm). | Courtesy Kunst Museum St. Gallen, Photo by Stefan Altenburger

 
    Exhibition Label | Arthur Simms: “Icema and Chester is one of the oldest sculptures in the exhibition. It is one of my first rope sculptures. Icema and Chester are my parents, it’s kind of a portrait. It revolves around our immigration as a family to the U.S. in 1969. The sculpture is in an unstable equilibrium and has a special smell. It’s a raw work, influenced by Nkisi nail fetishes from the former Congo, where nails were hammered in by a shaman to unleash a magical power.”
 


Installation view of “Arthur Simms: Chair with My Hair,” Kunst Museum St. Gallen, Switzerland, Feb. 10-July 7, 2024. Shown, from left, ARTHUR SIMMS, “Wonderful, Wonderful, Arthur Simms in Kingston, Five Halos,” 2015 (hair of the artist, marker, wood, paper, silver pencil, coral, wire, nails, glue, postcard, glassine, graphite, fabric, canvas, paper bag, photography, 99 × 53 × 13 cm); “Reverend Ike,” 1996 (wood, wire, bottle, paper bag, metal, felt, screws, marker, ink, knife and flash paint, 163 × 54 × 25 cm). | Courtesy Kunst Museum St. Gallen, Photo by Stefan Altenburger

 


Detail of ARTHUR SIMMS, “Chair with my Hair,” 2024 (hair of the artist, chair, glue, stones, cans, toy, wood, wire, rope, strap, light bulb, 226 × 122 × 176 cm). | © Arthur Simms. Courtesy the artist, Martos Gallery, Karma Gallery and Thomas Dane Gallery. Photo by Stefan Altenburger

 
    EXHIBITION LABEL | Arthur Simms: “The work Chair With my Hair, created in St.Gallen, is framed by two columns of crushed cans. One thinks of the artist John Chamberlain, who in 1985 was a lecturer at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, where I was studying at the time. Or you think of this huge amount of garbage in the Pacific Ocean, which floats around freely like the largest continent. Hopefully, people are also thinking about how we are polluting our plane.

    “The weight of these two columns is probably over 150 kilos each. It’s all about mass and weight. In the middle is the chair with my hair, another of my works with a chair on a sleigh. He has several bases like Brancusi’s. And then you have this strap that leads to a pile of rocks.

    “In the mid-1980s, I began to use hair in my work. In 2002 in Rome, at the American Academy, I began to make drawings with postcards of Caravaggio, my Black Caravaggio series (exhibited in the entranceroom). In addition to this reference to the Baroque, I needed some-
    thing that represented myself. So that’s when I started using my hair. This is the first sculpture with my hair, so it’s important in that regard as well. But it has to be my hair. It can’t be someone else’s hair, because it directly references me, the Jamaican, the American, the African.”

 


ARTHUR SIMMS, “Little Bug,” 2024 (feathers, wire, rope, glue, metal, wood, iron, 61 × 96 × 58 cm). | © Arthur Simms, Courtesy the artist, Martos Gallery, Karma Gallery and Thomas Dane Gallery

 

BOOKSHELF
“Arthur Simms,” a monograph of the artist is expected to be published by Karma gallery in September. Also consider, “The Lives and Times of Mal and Mel: Three Times Jamaican Olympians.”

 

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