In Gary Simmons's show The Engine Room, which is currently up at Henry Art Gallery, the Los Angeles-based artist experiments with elements of Seattle’s music history, particularly focusing on the contributions of Black musicians to the scene. He's even built a life-sized garage for Seattle-area musicians—like The Black Tones and Ishmael Butler—to play in. And it fucking rules.
The exhibition also houses several paintings, a giant drawing, and the titular engine made out of foam wrapped in foil. Like the rest of Simmons’s body of work, the commissioned show at the Henry plays into his fascination with the obscure and smudged out, and how to reverse engineer an identity from those traces.
"It's reflective of Black history," Simmons told me in a recent phone interview, speaking about the main thrust of his work. "So much of our history has been completely eradicated. And I think you have to recreate bits and pieces in order to define yourself. "
But before we jump into the garage, we must first look at Simmons's painting "B Sides," which seems to loom over the gallery space and—in my opinion—unlocks the ideas held in the heart of the show. The size of a movie screen, the drawing takes up an entire wall, easily engulfing viewers into its recesses. Names of b-sides from Jimi Hendrix 45s—“Stone Free,” “If 6 Was 9,” “Highway Chile”—are written in white typewriter font and appear to float above the work’s black surface, partially rubbed out in a way that makes the drawing feel ghostly.
“B Sides” is what Simmons calls an erasure drawing, a technique where he covers blackboards or slate-painted surfaces with chalk drawings and words. He then goes back over the piece and runs his hands through the images and texts, erasing much of what he’s done. Simmons has kept up this technique for years on both small- and large-scale pieces, depicting subjects like racist cartoons from the early 20th century or phrases that mine the Black experience.
"For me, it was born out this attempt at erasing a stereotype, and the traces and the ghosts that are left behind,” he told me. "It’s a type of mark-making that hovers between representation and abstraction, where an image has to be completed in the viewer’s mind.”
So with "B Sides," we are presented with a famous guitarist's less famous songs. Maybe a few titles ring a distant bell, but it's up to the viewer to pull those bits of memory together to understand the painting in front of them. And that concept of fragmented, abstracted memory is underlined by the form—the white chalky text is legible, but partially erased. "B Sides" relies on you to put the pieces together, much like trying to recollect histories and stories and people obscured by the mainstream.
Conceived before COVID ground our lives to a halt, Henry senior curator Shamim Momin commissioned Simmons to do a show of new work in Seattle. Simmons had a pre-pandemic chance to visit Seattle to get a feel of the city. A lover of punk and rock music who once worked as a ticket scalper, he felt particularly excited by our city's strong connection to music and show culture—especially as home of the greatest guitarist of all time, who also happened to be Black.
Included in The Engine Room are three giant paintings whose colors play with different elements of image production: “RGB” is divided into red, green, and blue sections—the color model for electronic systems—while “Blackout” and “Whiteout” recall newspaper print. Each painting is composed of layers of show and band posters Simmons has collected and manipulated over the years from cities around the world, collaged on top of one another to create a wholly new composition.
“There’s so much visual information in the urban space that you almost have to fight tooth and nail to get somebody’s attention,” he said of his fascination with spotting band and show posters in the street. “That happens with the graphic punch of those kinds of posters—the colors, the photographs, the way that they're laid out.”
To create these paintings, Simmons scans or photographs posters, uploads them to his computer, and then alters every one until it becomes unrecognizable from its original form, playing with the colors, the font, the figures. He then takes these manipulated posters and layers them on top of each other, adding color and paint to fuse them further together.
While he says there are few posters from Seattle, they are probably unidentifiable. I thought I had memories of these bands or shows displayed in the paintings. Everything looked almost recognizable but a bit too slippery to land. This twisting and turning my brain did echoed the effect of the erasure technique Simmons used in "B Sides"—manipulating familiar words and images to comment on histories just out of grasp.
The collage-like paintings of band posters extend into the most impressive piece in the show—"Garage Band." Riffing on a previous work of his called "Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark," the sculpture takes the form of a life-sized suburban garage. It's constructed out of wood and replete with working speakers, boxes full of dusty old holiday lights, and a couple of amps. Viewers are invited into the space to look at the color saturated posters, peer at stickers, and soak in a version of a space where some of music's greatest bands got their start.
But "Garage Band" also functions as a real-life practice space. Over the next few months, the mock garage will house different Black musicians from Seattle in a residency series curated by the Henry and LANGSTON. The musicians are invited to spend time inside the sculpture, rehearse music, or work on new songs. On the days that the Henry is open to the public, museum-goers can watch these rehearsals and brainstorming sessions. And at the end of each residency, the artists perform in a livestreamed show on the Henry's YouTube for viewers at home.
This month, blues and punk-inspired band The Black Tones took over "Garage Band." In researching the project, Simmons told me he stumbled across the badass group on the internet and insisted they be part of the show. Over the phone, lead singer Eva Walker called accepting the residency a "no-brainer" and saw it as an excellent opportunity to get more vulnerable in a thrilling new way.
"I think it's a really cool idea because it's people seeing another view of a band they don't normally see unless it's in a documentary or something like that," she said. "If I went to a museum and got to see [my favorite bands] rehearse, I'd think that's dope!"
Over the past month, The Black Tones have had two public rehearsals in "Garage Band" and tried to keep it as normal as possible. The garage is positioned right across from "B Sides," and Walker said it was "super inspiring" to create in a space right across from a massive tribute to Hendrix. Walker said they've rehearsed a mixture of old songs, new songs, and deep cuts that they haven't released. On Saturday, the Henry will stream a live performance where The Black Tones will play some old favorites (and maybe a couple of new tracks) from the sculpture.
In June, Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces and Digable Planets will crash land for a residency in "Garage Band." And in July, the space will host a Build-a-Band Residency, where several Seattle-based musicians will come together for multiple jam sessions over the month. These artists encompass a wide range of genres, a tribute to and a recentering of the diversity of Blackness within Seattle's music scene. Placing these performances and rehearsals within a space that is normally quiet feels electric and necessary.
"This should be happening a lot more often," Walker reflected.
Reserve tickets to go check out Gary Simmons: The Engine Room here.