Denver Art Museum

Denver, CO



The Clay Grows Tall: The World of Charles Simonds

October 16, 1999 - March 26, 2000


Jane Fudge, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum, wrote the following essay for the Simonds exhibition. She has curatorial responsibility for photography and also a visual art and film critic.

Charles Simonds's sculptures are enchanting miniature architecture and landscapes. Most are landforms with small chambers and towers; some are abstract organic shapes, bulbous or phallic in form. Lovingly built brick by tiny brick, Simonds's sculptures engage the child in everyone. Yet they are not models or maquettes for anything, nor are they toys or dollhouses. Floral Font, which the artist describes as a "sort of thorny flower," is a typical Simends installation. Its hillocks and rock formations surrounding a lake seem to spout right up from the earth, only to crumble back into it.

(left: Charles Simonds, American, b. 1945,Floral Font (detail),1989, Clay, wood, plaster, twelve-foot diameter, Denver Art Museum: partial gift of the Lannan Foundation and extended loan of Leo Castelli, Jim Corcoran, and Richard L. Feigen, 1989.199. A model landscape with rock formations and structures that evoke ancient civilizations. The DAM acquired Floral Font in 1989.)

"My brother and I were adept at making portraits in clay," Simonds says of his medium, which he began using in the fourth grade at New Lincoln School in New York City. Impressed, the Simonds boys' parents sent them to study with two artists who did church reliefs. "I'm very good at angels," Simonds says.

Charles Simonds majored in art at the University of California at Berkeley and after graduation, taught college art in New Jersey. There he discovered an area of clay pits that had once provided the raw material for some of Manhattan's older buildings. He literally immersed himself in the subject, burying himself in a pool of wet clay to get a feel for the material. Back in New York, where he still lives, he experimented with clay and sand, learning to capture the look of the American Southwest or an African savanna.

When he first began making these "urban landscapes" in the 1970s, Simonds attached them directly to the walls of dilapidated buildings in New York City. The sculptures lasted until the old buildings collapsed or were torn down. Simends doesn't fire his clay, so it is remarkable that the sculptures survived at all.

Later, he made hamlets that nestled in nooks and crannies of galleries and public spaces. Large installations like Floral Font seemed to flow or erupt from gallery floors and corners. Indoors, Simonds's sculptures are protected from immediate destruction, but permanence is not what his work is about. Each time Floral Font is put on display, the artist must partly reconstruct it, and inevitably some of the work is lost or changed forever.

For all their fragility and playfulness, Simonds's sculptures are as serious and eloquent as any work in metal or stone. Floral Font is a philosophical instrument of sticks and unbaked clay, a three-dimensional conversation about life and death, nature and humanity, and the way people go about living on the earth. It is a kind of equation in which landscape, home, and body are constants, but the sum of which is always zero.

Floral Font is grounded in the artist's longtime fantasy about the "little people" to whom this terrain is home. The notion of a race of diminutive humans is an archetype found in myths and folk beliefs worldwide. These wee folk are as diverse as leprechauns in Ireland, the small, fierce warriors of Native American legend, the citizens of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and the hobbits who inhabit holes in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. Science has not banished them; indeed, it has obliquely affirmed their existence. We know ourselves to be colonized by microscopic life from follicle mites down to viruses. Likewise, we crawl upon the skin of the planet, living in a conceit of human-sized time and space. Why should there not be other, smaller realms?

However, Simonds's little people are conspicuous by their absence. Their kivas and dwelling houses, treasuries and reservoirs are empty. Either the buildings are not finished or they are in ruins, abandoned and slowly eroding away. Floral Font invites us to explore this world and, by extension, our own.

The landscape that supports the little people's architecture is an inhospitable desert. Baked by the sun, scoured by sandy, siccative winds, the desert is traditionally a place of death and refuge, renunciation and insight. In the desert the Israelites wandered for decades in search of a great truth. Anchorite saints went to the desert to pray. All over the world, people repair to the desert to die. In his meditation on the futility of human existence, the World War I soldier-poet Wilfred Owen wrote of the life-giving sun:

Think how it wakes the seeds--
Woke once the clays of a dead star. . . .
Was it for this the clay grew tall?

The law of Charles Simonds's realm is elegant and simple. Earth gives rise to living beings who in turn build towns and temples, disturbing and hallowing the mud that gave them life. Individuals die and the artifacts of their culture decay and return to the earth.

The cycle of creation and destruction informs Charles Simonds's microcosmic meditations. Yet the impulse to create things--including works of art--in the knowledge that they will eventually disappear is a godlike trait. In building his mythos, his topographies and landmarks, Charles Simonds arrogates to himself (and us) the status of deity, a perilous and ambiguous undertaking. Peer into the terraces and windows of Floral Font and into the world of Charles
Simonds's imagination. Then suppose you were to glance over your shoulder and discover a vastly bigger eye peering at you.

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