by Paul Laster
An artist, author, curator, collector, and cultural activist, Danny Simmons first started making art while watching his mother, an amateur painter, at work. The eldest of the talented Simmons siblings (his brothers are hip hop impresario Russell Simmons and rapper Joseph Simmons, aka “Rev Run” of Run-D.M.C.), Danny began seriously making art in the early-‘90s. Developing a personal style of painting that he calls Neo-African Abstract Expressionism, Danny has since had more than 50 solo shows nationwide.
A do-it-yourself artist for most of his illustrious career, Danny recently started using his smartphone as a tool to make art. Whitehot contributor Paul Laster caught up with the spirited artist at his current one-person show at the Skylight Gallery at Restoration Plaza in Brooklyn to discuss his creative approach to abstraction and new digital pursuit.
Paul Laster: Has your artwork always been abstract?
Danny Simmons: It was figurative in the late-‘80s and then it became a mix of figurative and abstract—kind of Picasso-esque, Basquiat-esque—and then I was searching for a way to become fully abstract. One of the things that has always fascinated me was the relationship between African Art and Modernism. I didn’t want to paint like Picasso and the Modernists; I didn’t want to abstract figures. I wanted to make the same impact without the figures. I spent a few years trying to figure that out. I went through Wilfredo Lam and looked at his work, which really resonated with me. He was really the last influence on me in figurative abstraction.
I had been looking at African Art, but I didn’t want to emulate it. I noticed something special about textiles and body painting: there were lots of dots. The repetition of dots became my point of departure for abstraction.
Laster: When did you start exploring the overlapping, looping lines in your work?
Simmons: I began working that way in the early 2000s and then I stopped it. I became more Norman Lewis-esque. About four or five years ago I started liking the addition and removal of things and leaving things like they’re continuing but then become unseen and then continue again. I’m exploring that motif and the circle—one is filled in the other is not. The circle has aboriginal roots, but it can be used in a very contemporary way.
Laster: The overlapping creates a network of marks that you have to try to penetrate and sort through to find things. Are you also painting in and painting on top of marks?
Simmons: Yes, I paint in and paint on top of what’s there so that it overlaps and then I’ll start it again with a different layer someplace else. Something might wash it out and then you’ll see a continuum further into the painting. You make the connections. It’s like a spiritual journey for me when talking about the connectedness between human beings, connectedness between supposedly higher powers; but mostly it’s connecting you to a feeling and other people’s feelings.
Laster: What motivated you to start drawing and painting with digital tools?
Simmons: A lot of my paintings have had a drawing sensibility. I often draw with charcoal in my paintings. I had never really thought about making digital art, but then I got this phone. It was months before I started playing with the stylus. I really just bought the phone and the pen to be able to write on PDFs and correct documents. I started doing sketches—just doodles—and the doodles became more elaborate—just black and white at first—and then I found the color palette and started playing with it. When I created the first one, I thought, “Oh, wow.” I hadn’t thought of printing it yet. It was a process for me. I showed someone what I had made and he said, “When are you going to print it?”
For me, prints are multiples and I don’t really make multiples. And then I realized that I could print one and it would be an original piece of art. I’ve made monotypes and the process is similar. I started thinking about the digital process differently when I realized that this is not a joke. It’s real artwork, with another form of creating it. If you keep it as an original piece it has value beyond a print. It’s really my work—just done in another way.
Laster: What kind of phone and apps and printer do you use?
Simmons: My phone is a Samsung Galaxy Note II, which has an embedded app. I don’t print them myself. I take them to a digital printmaker in Brooklyn. He vectorizes the image files so that the resolution holds together and then he prints them for me on high quality paper from Utrecht, the local art supply store. I printed five in the first set and they turned out beautifully, so I made more. I’ve done around 30 now.
Laster: Can you change the colors with a tap of the stylus?
Simmons: You can change the colors very easily. You can change the density and the flow of the coloring. It doesn’t have to be either thick or thin. There’s a slide so you can have wide brushstrokes or pinpointed lines. It takes some getting used to it. If you’re used to using a brush it’s different than this little pen; but once you get the hang of it, it feels really natural.
Laster: I’ve noticed that some of the prints have a tight resolution and that some are softer. It seems like the difference between using a fine brush or a big brush. How do you play with those relationships?
Simmons: That depends on the piece, but I usually start out with a wider brushstroke. One of things that I like about this process is that you can remove things quite easily. You have a color chart so you can replace the color and take out a piece and then go next to it with a thinner line. You have thinner lines interacting with thicker lines. It gives it a density and a depth that’s a lot easier to control than it would be with a brush.
Laster: How long does it take to complete a piece?
Simmons: It could be forever, but I probably haven’t spent more than two days working on one. However, they are dedicated; they’re not doodles. Just like you would dedicate time in the studio, you have to dedicate time with this work. One of the fun things about this process is that you can stop and save it—like you would a document—and then continue or erase parts of it. I’m an oil painter so it’s hard to remove oil paint and start fresh—it’s always a continuation. With this work you can start with a new palette and create two different things on the same plane. It’s a lot of fun.
Laster: What do you think about when you’re making these pieces?
Simmons: The same thing that I think about when I’m painting: How I’m relating it to people. A lot of this stuff is cloaked social justice stuff and cloaked humanity and spirituality stuff. I’m really trying to get at how people are connected to each other and invoke the feeling that these paintings are taking you to a place where a lot of people can be transported to at the same time and find a common ground there. Society is so polarizing between rich and poor, races, and religions; but one of the things that can bring people together is art. Everyone can find something in a piece of art that relates to his or her soul. I’m thinking about how this artwork will affect people looking at it. You don’t have to have the same feeling, but hopefully part of it will transport you to the same place that I went and you’ll find what you find there.
Laster: What’s the strangest situation that you might have been when you’ve made one of these digital works? In a taxi or at an airport or a waiting room, what?
Simmons: The bathroom! (Laughter) Very seriously, I was coming out the shower and I had worked on a piece the night before and as I was getting out of the shower and toweling off I thought, “Oh, I know what I want to add to this thing.” I was standing there naked with the phone in my hand and the pen and drawing like that for about half an hour before I considered getting dressed. That’s one of the things I like about the process: the immediacy of it. You’ve got this little thing that you can carry with you and create. I’ve been in board meetings and have flipped out my phone and started working.
Laster: Do you think this process will change the way people make art?
Simmons: One of the things about making art with a phone is that it’s very democratic. I see it as a wonderful way for artists in remote places—artists in the third world, where there are no painting supplies or they are in short demand—to be able to make art. So much work nowadays is seen off of walls and viewed digitally. You can create viable pieces of art and transport them all around the world with your phone and be recognized as an artist. For people that don’t have the resources to pay for art supplies and don’t have the money for shipping art, they can still make art and email it to a printer who can make it ready to show—even if the artist is in a village in Africa. Digital art can definitely level the playing field.
Danny Simmons: Noisey in the Next Room, which features many of Simmons’ new digital prints, is on view at Skylight Gallery at Restoration Plaza in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn through January 3, 2014.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author