Several weeks ago, I reviewed an exhibition of ten artists at the New Bedford Art Museum and deliberately overlooked a singular work by artist Carl Simmons. But that wasn’t because his works deserved less contemplation than his nine co-exhibitors.
Rather, I considered his untitled “installation” so ambitious and rich in visual, historical, and nostalgic stimuli that I felt it needed to be approached in a focused and encompassing way.
Installation art has a number of varying characteristics, including three-dimensional elements and site specificity. It is often temporary, sometimes theatrical, and probably designed to transform the viewer’s perception of space as they pass through it in order to fully experience it.
Simmons’ work is certainly 3D, site-specific, temporary and theatrical, but it is absolutely not designed to be traversed. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as a cable is pulled across a large alcove, barring visitors from entering the area.
It is less an installation than a window on a three-dimensional world in itself. It’s much the same as one might feel looking at the decor of a theater or the artificial enclosures of animals in a zoo. It’s not an installation, it’s a complex environment.
And this environment does not only contain space. It contains time. Or at least, reminders of its passage.
Simmons, a photographer, stop-motion animator and occasional performance artist, is also a local scholar and historian with a particular admiration for 19th-century Quaker lawyer, philanthropist and poet David Ricketson (who was a close friend of Henry David Thoreau listen)) and the swamp it had drained that would eventually become Brooklawn Park.
But Simmons’ affection for all (great) New Bedford knows no bounds, and the museum’s transformed alcove is testament to that. With the able help of his wife Rachel Stopka, an architect, they laid a slightly raised platform and covered it with 1970s-inspired linoleum, making a clear separation between the space and the black floor of the rest of the museum.
The walls are painted a slightly nauseating shade of yellowish green. And then Simmons, who could be described as equal parts urban archaeologist, junk collector and savvy curator of past treasures and junk, loaded the room with old signage, newspapers, cardboard and stickers for create a fascinating insight. in what was once New Bedford.
By design, it looks like a tight, disorganized basement, garage or storage shed, the kind of spaces Simmons likes to explore. Drawing from his own collection of local paraphernalia and detritus and borrowing some from other members of the community, it’s an indulgent and sentimental view.
There is something quite democratic about the orderly chaos of the space in which the objects are displayed, treating no object with more respect than another. A Normal hours 1941 newspaper (then costing three cents) features a bold headline that reads: “Charles A. Ashley, City Mayor, for 32 Years, Drops Dead at Home.” It sits on a pile of other papers in an old, water-damaged Virginia Dare cardboard box.
Against one wall is one of the once familiar dark blue Moby Dick Trail signs, adorned with the image of a harpoon. There’s a park bench with its faded, cracked and peeling paintwork, perhaps once from Simmons’ beloved Brooklawn Park.
There are a number of bumper stickers, filled with local boosterism. There’s a bright red one that says “New Bedford Whale of A City,” in which the whale is a cute cartoon. Another sticker references one of the town’s resident elephants and reads “I ❤️ Emily”. Yet another is a promotion for WBSM’s “Cuzzin” Dave’s old Chuckwagon Show.
Throughout the room, Simmons placed reminders of New Bedford’s past and present businesses. A barely complete sampling includes a red, white and black cardboard box from Dawson’s Brewery, a box from the Acushnet Process, another from Executive Coffee and Vending, and a piece of cardboard from Harve’s Shoe Box.
And there’s so much more: the yellow sign of Cheap John’s Joke Shop, purveyor of chewing gum and fake vomit; the Chayce Answering Service sign, a County Street staple; a rusty ventilation fan from the roof of Pa Raffa; an SRTA bus schedule; cans of Polaroid film, a fridge magnet promoting the New Bedford Gas Company; a key fob from O’Hara Chevrolet…
Obviously, the installation not exactly a Simmons installation is largely successful due to the nostalgia factor. But that does not in itself make it a capital art.
What is color and composition. Simmons approached space from scratch, literally speaking. He arranged the elements of the room as judiciously as a painter setting up a still life.
He played each other’s colors. He understands the visual push and pull of the environment and exploits it perfectly, making the most of every little detail. This includes the gum wrapper and a green tie he put on the floor. They act as visual flourishes and complete the overall picture. And that’s quite the picture.
The untitled work by Carl Simmons is part of the “In Residence: NPS AIR + CAIR Alumni” exhibition at the New Bedford Art Museum, 608 Pleasant Street, New Bedford until November 13.