Paducah School of Art & Design, 905 Harrison St, Paducah, KY • Friday, October 29, 9:00am – Thursday, December 9, 3:30pm
We enter into another’s suffering at great risk and with uncertain reward. Yet we must go. The only option is the sterile isolation of narcissism. When put that way it is really a necessity rather than a choice that draws us there. Yet it is also the paradox of a deeper freedom; we are drawn outside ourselves to an encounter with the stranger, a journey that demands that we escape from our incessant self-serving.
Randy Simmons recent show “Achromic” at the Bill Ford Gallery – Paducah School of Art and Design is at once emotionally wrenching and liberating. He relentlessly explores the trauma of watching his mother age and decline in a series of portraits rendered in graphite and chalk. The title of the show suggests the choice Simmons makes in a reduction to basic media; the black and white of pencil on paper, which provides the force and focus of his work.
The elemental nature of the media, the recurrent suggestive phrase it evokes: “in black and white”, the raw simplicity that comes from denying us spectral color, these constitute a language of direct expression. It seems to speak a language of this… and nothing more. It makes the viewer resist the urge to wander but instead encourages us to linger, to focus.
And yet this aesthetic choice ultimately does the opposite of limit or constrict. By helping us to navigate through the dark waters of despair, fragility and hopelessness, the basic-ness of black and white becomes at last a comfort and a guide. And the form that Simmons gives to each piece; the pictorial clarity, the transporting imagery of associated objects that each portrait inhabit, suggest at last the light of hope that gets us through.
As I took time with each of the large drawings on exhibit, I was consistently reminded of the powerful companion that art can be. The theater that art inhabits provides an opportunity to examine at a distance what general life presents to us, a experience that can typically fluster and overwhelm. In the quietude of an image we are allowed space to process and reabsorb, translating cacophony into something more sonorous.
The exhibit is not an easy stroll through. Simmons has watched his mother decline in health and attended to her diminishing mental acuity in recent years. No visitor to the gallery escapes the resonances that resound from these images into each of our lives. I have just returned from a long delayed memorial service (due to Covid) for my own Father. A friend recently attended the death of her dearest friend due to cancer. None of us are untouched.
So much of this is taboo. We recoil from visiting these dark waters and our culture certainly provides every option to lift any pain from us. Even the suggestion that suffering might be a significant human experience is frequently shrugged off or made risible. “Get over it!” and “Get on with it!” are the loudest voices we hear in response to confessions of pain. But we need to go through, not around.
Simon Critchley offers insight to this in his essay “We Can’t Believe/We Must Believe”, here speaking of Oscar Wilde’s notion of the “religion of agnostics”:
“The truth of art, according to Wilde’s romantic aesthetics, is the incarnation of the inwardness of suffering in outward form, the expression of deep internality in externality.”
Randy Simmons has helped to place each of us in that moment of turning. Our absolutist notions of the subjective self are exposed as fraud. His trials with the raw emotions involved in being human become transformed through his art into a moment of communal grace. It is a request to participate in every aspect of life in order to understand. For these things are shared.