Taylor Simmons is Solidifying Black Cultural History

Taylor Simmons, Living Is My Best Option, installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and Helena Anrather, New York.

In his Jessica at 3:00, Taylor Simmons paints from a photograph he took on the New York Subway. “I’m a cyclist. I know that if you have your bike on the train, that means you’re completely beat”, he says. The subject fits an archetype Simmons keeps returning to. The “unc,” “uncle”, or “bossman,” is a social archetype known to Black people across continents; ageing, known to the neighbourhood, friendly and familial, yet not paternal. Simmons, an Atlantan calling Brooklyn home, and myself, a Londoner from the North of England, chime immediately in the Black universality of the Unc – seeing him in sparks an instant recognition, a punctive pull. “It’s the guy who stands outside the bodega, the guy on his way to work,” Simmons adds. Across his new exhibition, the Unc often appears. 

In LIMBO = Living Is My Best Option, on show at Helena Anrather Gallery, New York, the self-taught painter debuts his first solo show in America, doubling as the gallery’s final exhibition before closing its doors for good. Running February 16 – March 23, Simmons painted 11 of the 12 works within the last six months, a torrent of pieces developed in sequential fervour. The show’s title references the ongoing court proceedings of Young Thug, in which the rapper stands accused of running the criminal gang Young Slime Life, YSL for short. The central figure in a 28-defendant, 56-count indictment, Thugs’ charges include firearm and narcotic possession, as well as conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO). Prosecutors claim Thug is the mastermind behind YSL. Defendants claim to instead be members of the music group Young Stoner Life, a case of mistaken identity linking them to the gang. As I write this, Young Thug has been in jail 675 days. 

As part of the case Thug’s lawyers claimed that his moniker is not a reference to criminality but godliness. They claim “T.H.U.G” in fact stands for “Truly Humble Under God”. Across the case the lyrics of both Thug and fellow rapper Gunna are subject to warring explanations; prosecutors and defendants fight to prove either gang involvement or total innocence. 

Jessica at 3:00, 2024. Image courtesy of the artist and Helena Anrather, New York.

Simmons, an avid hip-hop fan, has been following the case closely. For rap enthusiasts the sprawling case has become a defining cultural act. A seemingly endless tirade of memorable moments, lyric readings, salacious accusations and biblical explanations keep twitter/X busy for weeks, months, now years. Young Thug is releasing music from jail. 

In LIMBO = Living Is My Best Option, from court cases to Nike Air Force Ones, Simmons employs Black cultural signifiers how a music producer employs samples: windows into another world, deep cuts for the select few. “If you get it you get it,” he says. “I’m jokes like that.”

While working out of a converted barn upstate, Simmons (b.1990) felt “heavy” with the weight of the world. “It’s been non-stop since the pandemic,” he says. “The news cycle at the time was very much on Gaza. Since the pandemic, everything has become increasingly crazy, all these insane things happening faster and faster…it feels like everything just keeps ramping up as we move from tragedy to tragedy, shock to shock. We’re always in between happenings,” he says. His paintings began taking on a darker edge. “I’ve been using a lot more black.”

Taylor Simmons, Living Is My Best Option, installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and Helena Anrather, New York.

This feeling of in-betweenness, of the self-being pushed from one event to the next, was heavy on the painter’s mind. A state of “waiting for a normalisation that never comes” birthed new works. “We’re heading somewhere, this trajectory pushing us forwards… yet I also feel we’re not going anywhere,” he reflects. While discussing Jessica at 3:00, Simmons identifies with his subject: “He’s exhausted, having a quiet moment to himself, processing everything. When I was upstate, that was exactly how I was feeling; The world’s on fire, but he still has to wake up, get the train, and go to work. We’re all in this limbo. Waiting for something.” 

Through his cultural references, Simmons “solidifies” Black cultural history. Under his levity, he’s turning Black reality into Black mythology, floating within a shared acceleration of existence; tragedy after tragedy, exhaustion within limbo. The Unc is the kind of guy who shouts “Where’s my hug at?” to passing women, something we tend to roll our eyes at — a man of another time, unable to move on. Yet Simmons asks: “where is his hug at?” Where can he turn for intimacy, connection, love? Similarly, Simmons is thinking about the reality behind the epic tale, which is the Young Thug trial. “It’s jokes, right? But under the comedy of the case, if you think about it in the context, there are these men who are stuck, waiting for this trial to start. That’s limbo,” he adds. “We [Black people] have such a way of making levity from our pain. It’s a cultural practice, making what you can out of what you have. I think it’s beautiful.” 

UMI Says 3:20, 2024. Image courtesy of the artist and Helena Anrather, New York.

This brings our conversation back to music — Simmons believes Black history is recorded sonically. “I can go back like three grandparents’ generations and that’s it…but in music, [Black Americans] have a canon,” he says. A continuum. Jessica at 3:00 references the song Jessica by Herbie Hancock, “at 3:00” a timestamp. “I’m giving a score to the painting,” he explains. “What’s the scene? Who’s this person? What are they listening to?” he asks. He compares his use of Black semiotics to sampling, the painting a remix of all the “if you know you know” phenomena that came before. “Exegesis,” he says. “You take this thing, these notions, samples, icons, and you reprocess it.” He smiles while explaining this, mentioning loved musicians such as Mos Def, Gil Scott Heron, John Coltrane, Young Thug. “To sample is to canonise, to express something that holds meaning through the use of a prior expression. It’s an ongoing conversation between so many people.”

Written by Isaac Huxtable

Taylor Simmons, LIMBO = Living Is My Best Option is on view at Helena Anrather, New York until 23 March 2024.


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