Robert Simons at Holy Names University

Frank Cebulski, Artweek, June 2003

This impressive thirty-year survey of the work of Robert Simons covers 1968 to the present. On view are four periods in his development as printmaker and painter: intaglio prints from 1968 to 1974, serigraphs prints from 1975 to 1984, his signature duck paintings from 1987 to 1994 and his most recent work which includes images of a rubber chicken, a frog and other children's "toys." Throughout, are recurrent influences: Chinese landscape painting, Japanese printmakers-particularly Hokusai-and whimsical surrealistic constructs that recall Chagall, Tanguy, de Chirico and even Miro, especially in the use of large "flat" simple shapes and organized areas that converse with each other.

The intaglio prints include two "altarpieces," Water Altarpiece (1972) and Earth Altarpiece (1972); a nocturnal landscape with hills, trees, stars and crescent moon, Landscape: Orinda (1969), very much in the Japanese woodblock style; a "reverse print" diptych of facing skeletons, The Joys of Infancy (1971). A surrealist landscape, Here Even Too (1974), realistically depicts the torso of a nude woman with her hands behind her head, who looks ominously or benevolently over a stylized foreground that could be water rushes, a lake or a pond. The altarpieces are exquisitely executed, their images broken into demarcated areas like sections of a traditional altarpiece and organized in such a way that each section could stand alone. The foreground of Water Altarpiece is decorative with looping interlocked roots in a chain that transforms into rivers, clouds and oceans as the perspective recedes.

The serigraphs are very different in execution and composition: bright bold color schemes and large patterned shapes play and communicate with each other in two dimensions. For example, In Oakland There Were Reports of Trouble by the Lake (1981) has the look and feel of a Matisse paper cutout, with reference to water and fire. A large foregrounded black shape is filled with fingers and fingernails transforming into a hand pointing to another floating black fist that seems to be moving away and out of the picture plane. The background is red, overlaid with silver "flame shapes;" the foreground is filled with a blue lake with fire flitting over it. The brilliant patterns and colors of this print belie the ominous nature of the images, disembodied indicators, of imminent danger and threat. It Would Have Come to This Eventually (1979) tells an erotic and humorous sexual story. On a flat deep red background, male hands hold onto leafy vegetal phalluses that are outside, but next to a central image of what could be a pair of legs or a stylized vagina. The size of the image shifts from large to small, cleverly moving in and out of the picture plane. The effect is to create movement and action among the shapes that simply tell a funny, but sensual, story.

For several years Simons was possessed by the strong, signature image of a strange and exotic duck with a black head, a long sinuous neck, a yellowringed red eye and a bright orange beak and forehead. This ubiquitous image and strange shape appears forcefully in many paintings of his third period. Its source is a wooden duck Simons bought in a toyshop on a visit to Hawaii in 1987. His variations show what a good artist Simons really is, for it is quite difficult to repeatedly incorporate such an overpowering large visual object without becoming monotonous and shallow. In fact, Simons shapes and alters the duck from painting to painting such that the image finally takes on mythic quality, whose power, as Joseph Slusky states in his catalog essay for this show, "is its enigma."

The all-seeing presence and everupward-looking gaze of the duck creates an effect of a transcendent "other" despite its ostensibly local and topical "subject." Significant paintings for me in this group include: The Facade of Infallibility (1988); The Verdict of Archaeology (1992), a graphic and emotional response to the Oakland firestorm in 1991; and The Departure (1993) which incorporates, besides the duck looking forebodingly skyward, a beautifully rendered, stylized stork and the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. The emotions projected by this work are of isolation, dissociation and abandonment-a telling comment on contemporary politics and the state of the individual, to say nothing of our lost ecologies. Simons also effectively fills and overruns the delicate borders of his paintings with the powerful image of a yellow toy wooden pull duck with wheels. The Untitled Blindfolded Toy Duck No. 2 (1994) is most impressive here, the green pull rope coming from the duck's breast and wrapping dumbly around its head, covering its eyes in an allegory of "childhood innocence blinded."

Simons's most recent paintings focus again obsessively upon another strange fowl, this one a rubber chicken, which he uses to further explore the theme of "departure" in The Orderly Departure (2000) and The Disarranged Departure (2001). He repeats a chicken head, looking upward, in panels that vary slightly in position and cropping. The effect is that of truncated filmstrips, intriguing imitations of pop art portraits of celebrities. One I particularly like is La Dance (2000), in which the rubber chicken is extended full-length from corner to corner of the picture plane, in a dancing motion that has the energy of a headlong rush. In the background is a stylized elongated black box that looks strikingly like a coffin. Simons says that the image of this rubber chicken appeals to him for the power of its simultaneous "attractive beauty and repulsive ugliness, like de Kooning's women." One would hope, however, without their sexuality.

Frank Cebulski is a contributing editor to Artweek.