Xaviera Simmons, African Grape, detail, Color photograph; 30 x 40".

Xaviera Simmons: Photography, Video, and Installation as Literature

Xaviera Simmons (A collaboration with Jibade-Khalil Huffman), Oscillation: (For a minute there, I lost myself), performance at Museum of Arts & Design, Manhattan, December 18, 2008, Photos by Irina Sarnetskaya.

Xaviera Simmons (A collaboration with Jibade-Khalil Huffman), Oscillation: (For a minute there, I lost myself), performance at Museum of Arts & Design, Manhattan, December 18, 2008, Photos by Irina Sarnetskaya.

Xaviera Simmons (A collaboration with Jibade-Khalil Huffman), Oscillation: (For a minute there, I lost myself), performance at Museum of Arts & Design, Manhattan, December 18, 2008, Photos by Irina Sarnetskaya.

Xaviera Simmons (A collaboration with Jibade-Khalil Huffman), Oscillation: (For a minute there, I lost myself), performance at Museum of Arts & Design, Manhattan, December 18, 2008, Photos by Irina Sarnetskaya.

Xaviera Simmons (A collaboration with Jibade-Khalil Huffman), Oscillation: (For a minute there, I lost myself), performance at Museum of Arts & Design, Manhattan, December 18, 2008, Photos by Irina Sarnetskaya.

 

Contemporary Arts Museum
5216 Montrose Boulevard
Houston
713-284-8250
Zilkha Gallery
Perspectives 157:
Xaviera Simmons

July 20-September 30, 2007

By LAURIE DAHLBERG

Perspectives 157: Xaviera Simmons, the first Texas exhibition for this Brooklyn-based photo, video and installation artist, will fill the walls of the Zilkha Gallery with the artist’s collection of vintage album covers from recordings by significant black musicians ranging from Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to Anthony Braxton and Alice Coltrane.

The exhibition also features jazz film and video footage, felt-covered sitting booths, and a DJ platform with speakers. Simmons performs a DJ set at the opening, and the room serves as listening station and performance space through the exhibition’s run.

The interactive sound installation creates constantly changing space in response to its audience.

Perspectives 157: Xaviera Simmons is organized by Contemporary Arts Museum Houston curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, and is accompanied by a Perspectives-format catalogue with an essay by Cassel Oliver, reproductions of exhibited work, and documentation on the artist’s career.

Simmons was born in New York and graduated from Bard College in 2004 with a BA in photography. In 2005 she completed a two-year actor training program with Maggie Flanigan and a year-long studio residency with Ron Clark at Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.

She was the 2005–2006 workspace artist at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning as well as the 2005 VKP Artist Educator at New Museum. She is cofounder of Tuffness Crew, a dj collective.

“Let photography be literary.” This was Clement Greenberg’s advice in 1946, when he feared that art photographers were neglecting the true nature of their medium in following modern painters into the domain of pure abstraction. Xaviera Simmons’ recent color photographs take on this hoary old prescription as a challenge to be met with joy.

Not surprisingly, Simmons, a history junkie, also acknowledges a debt to one of the great figures of photography, Walker Evans (who also happened to be Greenberg’s model for a “literary” photography.)

Like Evans, she recognizes and cherishes the creative spirit in the vernacular — decorated storefronts and intimately embellished interiors, where the viewer is seduced by the photographer’s careful attention to structure, surface, and detail (occasionally you may even catch Simmons playfully quoting some element of Evans’ famous works.)

But the comparison only goes so far, perhaps because mining the past is not the point for Simmons; it’s simply one of the many strategies that she holds in reserve as she considers what feels right for each concept and composition. Moreover, Simmons’ color images are as warm as Evans’ black-and-whites are cool, which reminds us that Evans, a white, upperclass male, was an outsider looking in on the exotic customs of various American “others,” while Simmons photographs the people and places of her own life.

Although the pictures’ juicy color and vivid camera detail are intensely descriptive (and therefore literal), there is a greater sense in which they evoke language. These are highly condensed images that read epigrammatically; they don’t tell stories as much as they suggest mottos, aphorisms, puns, and declarations. Working mainly with portraits and figures in the landscape, Simmons creates pictographs of love, pride, fear, isolation, and desire, that carry along related themes of race, culture, and nature. She arrives at these emblematic expressions through a combination of the artificial and the natural, punctuated by an intense palette of primary colors. While the settings are harvested from everyday life, Simmons’ handling of people and pose is deliberate and rhetorical. In Arie at the Wall, a woman, draped in a fluid gown, stands on a city sidewalk in profile against a blood red wall, holding a pose that recalls the elegantly stylized figures on ancient Greek pottery—a winged victory figure for the city in the new millennium. Other images are similarly iconic; an interracial biker couple locked in a blazing kiss against the backdrop of a fallow field, a young boy holding a frustrated girl at arm’s length in a backyard, a teenaged swimmer standing with outstretched limbs beneath the flowing water of an outdoor shower. Without an extensive narrative context, gestures and expressions take on a distilled potency.

Simmons’ titles, often based on the historical lexicon of African-American slang also clue us in to her intense interest in language and the way it has determined both black experience and white experience of blacks in America — hence her giddy parodies of racial stereotype in African Grape, n. (1970s-1990s) and International Nigger/Robert Beck, n. (1950s-1960s). In Jaamburr, an 18th-century African-American coinage meaning “free black,” Simmons evokes literacy itself. This unassuming portrait of a man quietly writing in his room, seated against a wall covered with sensational newspaper stories—stories in which African-Americans likely appear only as sports figures, criminals, or victims—provokes a question: when was the last time you saw a depiction of a black man engaged in the life of the mind? Most of all, Simmons seems determined to make pictures on her own terms. Sometimes freighted with history, sometimes buoyed by an animated spirit that is purely idiosyncratic, Simmons’ work may not be black and white, but it does ask to be read all over.

— Laurie Dahlberg is an Associate Professor
of Art History and Photography
at Bard College

 

Xaviera Simmons (A collaboration with Jibade-Khalil Huffman), Oscillation: (For a minute there, I lost myself), performance at Museum of Arts & Design, Manhattan, December 18, 2008, Photo by Irina Sarnetskaya.

Xaviera Simmons, Landscape: Two Women, detail, Color photograph; 30 x 40".