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Utopian Semblances in the work of Noah Simblist

The events of 9-11 made Americans aware of their alien status in the world. We are foreigners in a world of foreigners and we are strangers to ourselves. In keeping with such personal disaffection, the professor-artist-writer Noah Simblist makes art that propels the viewer into a gridlock of political debate and self-questioning.

Noah Simblist...Home-land...2007...Video stills

I remember being in Vancouver as part of a teaching gig during that
time. I was slightly inebriated at a party the weekend following the
ugly event, but I meant it when I told a skeptical Canadian, "The
American way is the Jewish way, and vice versa.” At the time, my
comments were driven by a profound sense of solidarity with Israel, not
to mention a longstanding titillation with Jewish men. Two wars and
many American miscalculations later, I hold steady to my position. The
American way is the Jewish way, yes, pragmatically speaking, because
the state of Israel is a reality with a century of history and because
it is a democracy. Also, the American way is the Jewish way because
Israel, like America, engages in preemptive pugilism. As a Palestinian
voice in Simblist’s soundwork Homeland says, “We didn’t commit the
Holocaust, so why have they taken vengeance on us?” A better, if not
tit-for-tat, logic would’ve had a post-WWII Israel appropriating land
from the Bavarians. Israel’s logic of taking territory in the Middle
East when the Holocaust occurred in Germany and Poland is not unlike
America’s rationale for war in Iraq. Waging war with Iraq in response
to 9-11, when none of the terrorists who took down the Twin Towers were
Iraqi, serves only to fortify a different kind of logic — the logic of
anarchic outcomes.

Noah Simblist...Home-land...2007...Photocopied pamphlets...Edition 200

Simblist works in the claustrophobic yet tumultuous interstices of this
political mayhem: a reformed Jew in Christian America, a vibrant young
conceptual artist teaching in an art department of old-school
traditionalists at SMU and an artist-citizen engaging the world by
probing its core political wound. This is his identity. As homo faber,
he is a painter pushing and prodding the medium to a new state of
limberness. Simblist sees the moving images, sounds and painted walls
in his work as part of painting’s collective bag. His work is an
infusion bearing the apotheosis of painting as a full-body, full-mind
experience. In similarly stretchy fashion, Simblist moves beyond the
tiresome dyads that once stifled painting, beyond the antinomies of
figural vs. abstraction and politically engaged vs. autonomous. One
might deduce that Simblist avoids all categories, but there’s one he
just cannot escape: utopian. He’s a utopian thinker not so much in
denial as in pursuit of a utopian vision that is more just, available
and restless in its dialectic.

He makes his restless utopianism legible in a host of powerful symbols:
the cube, the Star of David and the cross. By integrating such readily
identifiable signs into a field of monochromatic vertical stripes,
Simblist destabilizes these universal icons, leveling them to a ground
of almost arbitrary semiosis. In his own words, “Any universal idea is
bound to be infected by the ideology of those in power.” Exhibited in a
show curated by Vance Wingate at Dallas’ And/Or gallery, a series of
simple, roughhewn drawings hint at Simblist’s talent for mediating
symbols. In graphite and yellow gouache, A Tower of Babel Made from
Cubic Kaaba Modules Falls from the Weight of Yellow Stars
(2006) shows
Simblist negotiating age-old signs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
It is a simple rendering that at first brings to mind the neo-geo
abstraction of Peter Halley. Upon closer scrutiny, Simblist’s geometric
abstraction gives way to loaded symbolism with highly specific meaning.

Noah Simblist...Home-land...2007...Installation view...Wallpaper, LCD TV and DVD

In choosing to render abstraction by way of cubes, Stars of David and
crosses, Simblist has made the work very precise, a rumination on the
conundrum of belief and the socio-mental burden of religion. Seemingly
only so many golden arches of religious iconography, they are incisive
and heated signs, at once love- and hate-mongering beacons. The cube is
perfect Platonic form. It has been the preoccupation of artists from Robert Ryman to Sol Lewitt. It is also the shape of the Kaaba in
Mecca, the holiest place in Islam. The six-pointed star is a sign of
Jewish cohesion. Ancient Romans, Christians and Nazis rendered it in
yellow with the intention of shrouding Judaism in shame. Ancient Romans
used crucifixion as a means of execution. Today the cross is the sign
of belief and salvation for Christians. And the vertical stripes of
Simblist’s work nimbly play between the one-thing-after-another of
minimalism, the conceptualist high jinks of Daniel Buren and the
patterned pajamas worn by Jews in Nazi concentration camps. In laying
bare the homology of high-art repetition (Donald Judd and Buren) and
the coding of genocide (striped pajamas), Simblist has made old
arguments of autonomy seem like philosophie dans le boudoir — out of
touch and pointless. His use of loaded icons to constitute a field of
abstraction upends the hoary idea that abstraction is a prism for
disinterested spirituality. While negotiating spirituality through
abstraction, he nevertheless comes down on the side of materialism,
showing us that spirit and soul are always about our sensual embodiment
and being in the world.

Noah Simblist...Home-land...2007...Installation view...Wall painting, CD player, headphones and pamphlets

Simblist’s talents for destabilizing the viewer’s comfortable
familiarity with traditional religious iconography are most poignantly
felt in his multimedia work. The centerpiece of Al Nakba (2006), an
Arabic term for “catastrophe,” is a single-channel video in which
Simblist combined painting and moving images — renderings of religious
symbols on stripes are interspersed with footage of the Holocaust,
Palestinian military marches and news clips of violent skirmishes
between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Simblist installed the video
with his paintings atop a wall of meticulously painted stripes in New,
Newer, Newest
, an exhibition at the Pollock Gallery of work by new
faculty members in the division of art at SMU. Simblist’s
video-painting verges on a full-fledged environment. The more Simblist
goes in the direction of transforming painting into an enveloping
polysensual experience, the more powerful his work becomes. A case in
point is his installation of Homeland in the New Works Space at the
McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas. A monitor shows a short loop of
anti-Semitic clips, most of which come from the early twentieth
century. Simblist has transferred the stripes of concentration camp
uniforms to the wall behind the monitor, creating a
minimalist-cum-genocidal interior decoration. Making headsets
unnecessary, the sounds of voices emanate in a barely audible hum from
the monitor. Across the small room are two headsets with CD player with
different tracks to listen to and stacks of texts written by Simblist.
He has transformed the New Works Space into a somber laboratory for
political rumination. Simblist’s message is that hard-held memories
have now become the Zionist homeland. Visitors walk away with a lesson
on both the power of memory and the somewhat untapped agency of healthy

Above all else — beyond being a professor of art at SMU, a young Jew in
Christian America and a painter — Simblist is a citizen of the world.
He is a utopian in search of a better, less totalizing (yet extensive)
vision of what the late philosopher Jacques Derrida called
international friendship.

Charissa N. Terranova is an Associate Proffessor at SMU and a Contributing Editor to Glasstire.

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14 Responses

  1. b.s.

    how can you see that much in those boring paintings?

    minimalist-cum-genocidal interior decoration? come on, yer just huffing paint and blowing smoke up his ass.

  2. titus_obrien

    re: “The American way is the Jewish way, and vice versa.” I just have to express my discomfort with your very holly-go-lightly lumping Judaism whole cloth in with Zionism, in with being American, in with Neo-con imperialism. Jews do not by any stretch all believe in the state of Israel, nor all Israelis with “preemptive pugilism”, nor at least half of Americans with how our president is mis-handling our foreign poilcy. Maybe you could assert that the American way might be the Israeli way, if you’re wont to lump. The two nations are inarguably closely tied. Though the phrase seems mainly geared to stir up sh it. Which shocks, coming from you!
    I generally agree with the rest of your estimation of Noah and this show. It’s a good one, by one of Texas’ better artists. I think he’s genuinely breaking new ground.

  3. bacon

    i think your show looks good. but, it borrows too heavily from sol lewitt to be considered accomplished, mature work. throwing in religious iconography just makes it sophomoric in a dry, humorless way. you are someone whose work has some potential. i hope that this potential will be realized and that you will not have to depend on reviews from authors who are too close to you to see the merits and the shortcomings of your work.

  4. titus_obrien

    I think both of Simblist’s critics here are *exactly* missing the point. Any resemblance between Simblist’s work and some high modern/minimalist’s, or interior decoration, is a totally intentional tactic to initiate another discussion. I don’t really understand how you can miss it as some errant theft or lack of imagination. “throwing in religious iconcography?” what? that’s the substance of the work, not just some hook to make it look cool. He’s taking the barren language of an abandoned (if rabidly lauded) aesthetic, and those ubiquitous/loaded symbols, and turning them on their heads, usng them in a really sharp, smart way (much more Hans Haacke than Sol Lewitt) . Not to mention the show is very moving. Did those critical here even see it, listen to it, read the texts? I doubt it. If so, you didn’t get past the most casual glance.
    And a lot of really good writing about art comes from those closest in- Greenberg on Pollock, Judd on Flavin, Smithson on Holt, etc.
    Your criticisms show potential. We hope that this potential will be realized and you will next time actually see the art that you are so antsy to dismiss.

  5. bacon

    thanks what would have been a dismissive but perhaps more importantly, extremely amusing post. to the point, friends don’t make the best critics of their friends’ work. you wrote the review for the fw star telegram. terranova wrote the review for glasstire. neither of them are an accurate assessment of the artist. if the artist would like constructive criticism that will help him develop as an artist (a lifetime project), he will listen to me. if he simply wants to surround himself with yes-‘people’, who will sing only his praises, no matter how hollow the tune may ring, he’ll listen to ‘yous guys’. regardless, i don’t have to take what you say at face value, and i don’t have to be quiet about it, either. hugs and kisses, a.w.s. bacon, esquire

  6. bacon

    thanks so much for your pretentiously dismissive, and extremely amusing post. to the point, friends don’t make the best critics of their friends’ work. you wrote the review for the fw star telegram. terranova wrote the review for glasstire. no doubt, terranova also wrote a piece for that rag they call the observer. none of your pre-planned comments are an accurate assessment of the work. if the artist would like constructive criticism that will help him develop as an artist (a lifelong project for everyone), he will listen to me. if he simply wants to surround himself with yes-‘people’, who will sing only his praises, no matter how hollow the tune may ring, he’ll listen to ‘yous guys’. regardless, i don’t have to take what you say at face value, and i don’t have to be quiet about it, either. the problem with the younger generation of ‘deconstructionists’ is that they seem to have sold their services to the highest bidder and are only in it for themselves, and their pitiful, little, pretentious cliques. hugs and kisses, a.w.s. bacon, esquire

  7. bacon

    the problem with the younger generation of ‘deconstructionists’ (the term is meant as an insult. i offer this explanation in case you are as dense as you are pretentious and insincere) is that they seem to have sold their services to the highest bidder and are only in it for themselves, and their pitiful, little, pretentious cliques.

  8. titus_obrien

    for laughing a little. I don’t think Chariissa is getting any richer than I am off our little art conspiracy racket, with the coterie of art stars we are currently grooming (hey, somebody show me the money!) And while Noah is a very cool dude and a talented artist, and I would welcome chances to spend more time with him, I don’t really know him all that well. I wish we had a big pretentious clique. It sounds like fun. I’m mainly just at home trying to make art, and find some cash to pay for my wedding reception. Adjunct teaching, and making sort of dumb, unmarketably-oversize charcoal drawings, is (newsflash) not a get rich quick scheme.
    Not to mention that you’ve probably just offended some Deconstructivists. I couldn’t really live further from Derridasville. Though I would like to gently deconstruct that chip on your shoulder, and help convince you that you have nothing to fear, that Noah’s show is quite admirable from some fairly objective criteria, and …that you are loved.

  9. bacon

    derrida didn’t care much for the clowns who wanted to make his writing methods into a self serving, load of rhetoric. why should i?

  10. titus_obrien

    I’m so confused.
    But I still love you, Bacon. In an general humanitarian, ignore all the stupidity kind of way.

  11. bacon

    noah’s show does look good. but,it is not ready for prime time and he needs to move further away from the work of sol lewitt before he can find his own, unique ‘voice’. and by the way, ‘hybridity’ is not something new that just sprang out of the latest whitney biennial. it has been explored fully and more successfully by mike kelly, tony oursler and paul mccarthy, who have all been at it since the 70’s.

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