In the beginning, there were little people. If you understand that, you can begin to understand Charles Simonds and his work: unfired miniature clay structures that seem to have been left behind by some vanished civilization. Invented by Simonds, the intricately formed pieces first began popping up over twenty years ago, brick by tiny brick, in the crannies of abandoned buildings on New York's Lower East Side. In those days, Simonds was something of a folk phenomenon, working outdoors for a happenstance audience of curious folks. But now his works are found on gallery walls and floors across the country, from the permanent installation in a stairwell of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the friendly confines of the Denver Art Museum's Vance Kirkland gallery, where Floral Font, a large floor work from the museum's collection, is on display for the first time in ten years.
"It's born out of my own meditation on myself and clay," says Simonds, an ideological dynamo who lives and breathes his work. "The image of the work you see comes of taking some clay, sprinkling some sand on it and feeling that it's a place. Then you populate that place, and then you add the technology of making brick. It's an evolution about the history of that place and my own projection into it."
Hence the little people: They're the outgrowth of a traveling imagination that is married to an experiential philosophical system developed by the artist. "I enact a basic set of rituals which are points of reference of my mythological little people and their peripatetic ways," Simonds explains.
Floral Font and other works by Charles Simonds, through March at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 303-640-4433, www.denverartmuseum.org
Though Simonds's multi-layered dwellings clearly show signs of habitation, past or present, the viewer never actually sees the little people. They're an intricate figment of Simonds's imagination, based on his own relationship to the metaphorical clay, and as such are open to interpretation. Simonds originally took that relationship literally by burying himself years ago in mud "in order to give my body's imprint back to the earth."
In another conceptual experiment, he daubed himself in clay and sand to gain a better sense of houseness. "Those basic ingredients represent issues of a person's relationship to the earth, beginning with the idea of the body as the first house," he says. "I was trying to bring to a physical moment a relationship I perceived by turning myself into a house."
And how long does it take to turn oneself into a house? "It takes about three hours," he notes. But the lesson -- learned empirically through an act of turning oneself into a landscape -- apparently lasts a lifetime.
Take one look at Floral Font, an evocative geological soup of eroded rock formations giving way to tiny cliff dwellings, themselves in various states of wear, and you may start to learn, too. As timeless as Mesa Verde, where the trappings of a vanished culture cling to everything, embraced by the landscape while crumbling with time, Simonds's world remains human, avoiding stasis by slowly reacting to the earth and the elements.
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In synchronicity with that, his newer works, represented at the DAM by three recent wall works installed by the artist, seem to have come full circle, harking back to that early, informative mudbath. Luxuriant organic forms pieced together in a mosaic of Lilliputian clay bricks, they hang in repose on the gallery wall, suggesting but not clearly representing life forms. One snakelike form takes brief inspiration from the shape of a human arm; another untitled, three-part piece took its inspiration from an image encountered in nature: "The source of it comes from going hiking in England and finding on a wire fence an array of killed rabbits," Simonds says. "Some had clearly been killed yesterday, and some were killed perhaps a month ago -- they were all in different states of 'deathness.' The piece in the gallery is a built form, but it has the same metaphor of dead, deader and deadest. There's that whole issue of body and building, of time passing, of living and dying."
Perhaps the change in imagery, a sign of evolution, is also a sad -- or pragmatic -- homage to the old, perennial march of time. Skyscrapers are built over ancient ruins. The Lower East Side, where Simonds's original scenarios developed around a fantastic mythology specific to the neighborhood, is changed beyond recognition, and he says he no longer works there. His original mythologies have been overshadowed, and in the wake of redevelopment, it's no longer a place where the little people can live. Instead, they've moved on, clinging to walls wherever they can. What we see here in Denver and elsewhere are their remnants.
Simonds is refreshingly unwilling to pontificate on the future of his work, a medium ruled by its own contrasting ephemeral/ageless qualities. He still does occasional street work, especially when visiting a new city, but like civilization itself, it's a pastime that follows its own path and can't be predetermined. And in spite of his constant meditations on life's rising and falling connections to the earth, he's not exactly a believer in the old dust-to-dust theory. "I think of things as being eminently alive," Simonds says. "And I like to do things rather than talk about it."