Money, Maleness, and Fear
Mike Simi's Vague Menace
"I do not like my job as a piece of contemporary artwork," says Mike Simi's sculpture Mr. Weekend, "but at least I have a job." Mr. Weekend is a large blue-eyed sock puppet (white athletic sock, red stripes). He's made out of the machine parts that once made Chryslers in Detroit. He lingered in the rotunda of Bellevue Arts Museum earlier this year, telling his story in his machine voice. Since he does not like his new-economy job, and since he was laid off from his former job making Chryslers, you never know what he might do. He speaks threateningly toward the other artworks in the room; not belonging anywhere anymore, he is a vague menace, but also useless and ridiculous. He is a certain kind of sorry, live-wire American man, the kind who goes postal or goes quietly.
For the last five years, Mike Simi has tried to make it in Seattle as an artist with an MFA from the University of Washington and a handful of good connections. It began well. Soon after he graduated, Lawrimore Project included him in a show of promising young artists called Patch Dynamics. Then came the economic crash. Lawrimore Project is no more, and other ambitious galleries have closed, too. Simi has been picked up by Robert Yoder's Season gallery, but it is too late: Simi is moving back to the Midwest. Boo.
Simi is an observer of economics, masculinity, and anxiety. His sculptures are characters too ashamed or too absorbed or simply too faceless to look at you directly; they often only offer their backs. Siamese Handtruck, in a show of new sculptures and drawings at Season, recalls the earlier Nightmoves in Patch Dynamics. Nightmoves was a circle of male figures hanging from the ceiling, joined at the fronts, wearing hoodies and dark pants and sneakers; these were men who you imagined were young, underpaid, and pulling graveyard shifts moving around containers whose contents they didn't know. You never saw their faces. To create Siamese Handtruck, Simi tore apart two blue dollies, welded them into a single conjoined monster of kinetical/existential conflict, and had it perfectly repainted blue: bright and shiny, ready to frustrate the way Duchamp's bicycle wheel embedded in a stool's seat is a self-canceling object. (Charles Ray's brawny, useless steel tractor sculpture comes to mind, too.)
The "inversion of the use/status functions" is how UW gallery director Kris Anderson describes Simi's Everlasting Gobstopper. Willy Wonka made the candy so that those who couldn't afford to buy candy day after day would have something that lasts. Simi turned the underdog's sweet into lead, then painted it in bright enamel colors, cheerfully promising to break your teeth.
A large white monochrome painting presides over the Season exhibition, which is titled Happiness Rides Wide. The painting is seven individually built and stretched canvases joined to form a seven-sided polygon with a hole in the middle. Gleaming like a piece of heraldry from a spaceship (a sculpture of hockey skates with blades cut in the organ-savaging shape of the Klingon sword the Valdris is nearby), this heptagon is instead an everyday contemporary object in disguise. It's called Pill Organizer: a different kind of great white hope, or happiness written white.
Happiness Rides Wide is extra-sharp—there are several metal edges that could kill you and an overall near-asphyxiating formal tightness—and there's not quite enough here of Simi's softer, messier, sadder, madder side. But that side is present in a tender sketch of the artist as a roll cage (he becomes a gangly creature in the bendy shape that attaches to a truck to keep it from killing everyone inside if it flips), and in Dreamcatcher, the only plugged-in sculpture. Keys on a fob, bookended by two rabbits' feet, dangle from a wire. The wire comes from a controller box on the wall. Given a cue by custom software inside the box, the wire yanks the key fob. It's jolting, like the sound of a misfire. It happens again. Then the jolts come faster and faster until the keys are seizuring in a full-blown panic attack. Two rabbits' feet, begging for luck, seem crueler than one.