THE DUCKS (1987-1994)
In leaving behind the traditional printmaking processes with a reliance on solvents, chemicals and lacquer films, Simons began to work primarily in his home studio, closer to his growing family. This opened up new possibilities which he began to exploit with his "Duck" paintings.
During this time, Simons work remained focused on a very specific image; the model for the series was a small souvenir shop wooden toy purchased during a trip to Hawaii in 1987.
Simons used this image in over a dozen works. Self-consciously, in every piece, the bird stares out at us with one eye. Its enlarged scale makes it somewhat heroic in stature, assuredly assertive yet vulnerable and insecure. This dichotomy is Simons' metaphoric foundation for the series. My conclusion is that it is a stand-in for the artist himself acting as both observer and participant.
The duck creates an accessible entry into each work. It is a direct, arresting and somewhat sphinx-like image. It holds answers, but is not ultimately decipherable. Mysterious and bold and at moments friendly and animated, it provides associations and familiarity.
Its power is its enigma.
"The Custodian of Memory" (1987) was influenced by Simons' visit to an exhibition of French artist Christian Boltanski's work at The University of California Art Museum in the late 1980's.
One of Boltanski's installations about the Holocaust covered an immense gallery wall with thousands of articles of clothing consisting mostly of the sweatshirts, jackets and jerseys which kids would wear today. Simons sought to process this chilling image of loss for himself, using the duck as his companion.
The foreground depicts a barbed-wire clothesline. Hanging from it are symbols of particulates and remnants which resemble the clothing in Boltanski's installation.
The duck stares outward with a neck of flaming red and orange made from viscosity printing. It attests to a horror of fire created by a gestural field engulfing diverse abstract forms and fragments: a landscape of total dissolution.
"The Verdict of Archaeology" (1992) responds to The Oakland Firestorm of 1991. Here the duck appears with a decorative mosaic-like green body as it stands watch beside a charred vertical landscape. The top panel includes a microcosm of burning trees amid highly-colored bits of flaming debris. In the center are torn xeroxed photographs of trees in stark, high-contrast black and white emitting an intense nuclear heat. Below are tangled forms floating on a dark field possibly the beginning process of regeneration.
The "Blindfolded Toy Duck" series consists of three works depicting monumental images of a commonly seen bright yellow pull-along child's toy. In each of the pieces the toy assumes a different posture and bearing, but all are closely linked thematically.
In "Blindfolded Toy Duck No. 2" (1994), the pull rope, which may have umbilical-cord references, is menacingly tied around the giant toy duck's head, suggesting captivity or a firing squad victim's blindfold.
This childhood toy as firing squad target symbolizes for Simons how children (and, for that matter, all of us) today are menaced, threatened, and made vulnerable to stresses and fears regarding personal safety. These ominous behemoth toys are disturbing and disconcerting symbols in both scale and context.
Joseph Slusky is a sculptor who lives in Berkeley, California. January 2003