Artwork: Kristin Simmons, “Candy Land”. 80 x 60 inches, painting and mixed media on posterboard, 2012.
You’ve probably played Candy Land before. But you may not be familiar with the revamped version by Kristin Simmons. The New York artist has taken the childhood board game and turned it into a provocative statement on excess, consumption, and capitalism in the United States.
The mixed media artwork Candy Land began as part of Simmons’ senior thesis at Columbia University. Its themes emerged from dialogue with her peers about the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, which seemed to be blurring at an ever faster rate. Simmons also saw an easy analogy between sugar consumption in children and the way adults medicate themselves with drugs.
Simmons believes that when it comes to toy manufacturers, “there’s subliminal messaging going on in terms of appetites and wanting and lusting and having and getting.” This is especially apparent in board games, whether it’s buying property in Monopoly or accumulating candy in Candy Land or taking certain steps to ensure a fulfilling and successful existence in The Game of Life. “I have this existential query with all these things we played with as kids because I think they do shape a lot of our values and the way we navigate the world as adults,” she says.
Simmons is currently expanding the board game theme in preparation for a (still tentative) solo exhibition this fall. She’ll be reinventing The Game of Life as two separate, gendered board games. “Life is obviously very different, even in first-world Western society, for men versus women and I’m not sure if that gap is ever going to decrease,” she explains. In the original version of The Game of Life, one of the first things players have to do is register to vote. Given that the 2016 presidential election was rife with sexism, Simmons went looking for clues on how male and female experiences in life are different.
“The milestones that people have to pass will be very clichéd,” she says of her version of the game. “If you’re a woman and you’re over the age of 32 and you’re not married, are you going to freeze your eggs? Or are you going to find a sperm donor? Or are you going to settle down and start dating? These are major decisions we have to make because of age and socioeconomic status and where we are in our personal lives. For men, it’s about what college do you go to? Do you want to work for a major firm? Do you want to make a lot of money or do you want to pursue something that you really love and risk not having the hottest car and the best apartment?” The narratives are still in the development stages, but both male and female versions will be infused with cheeky humor.
Simmons isn’t pushing an agenda, however. “A lot of these issues I’m dealing with, I don’t necessarily have a stand on them, and if I do, it’s constantly changing,” she says. “People always ask me with my gun pieces, ‘What do you think about gun control?’ Honestly, it changes. I don’t know if people should be allowed to have guns or not.”
“I’m just as confused and disoriented by all the mixed messages we receive in the media as anyone else,” she continues. “I’m obviously liberal politically, but we hear so many contradicting things that it’s hard to kind of keep up and take a stance on anything. Me making these projects is kind of my way of processing what I’m hearing, how I’m thinking about it, and what I believe in.” She’s just the messenger, the canary in the coal mine. “It gets people talking and I think that’s what’s most important. Especially with political work, art can’t necessarily change politics, it can only reflect it or start a different conversation about it. If my work is doing that, I consider my job done.”
Though she focuses on hot-button issues in her artwork, on the phone Simmons doesn’t sound as apocalyptic as you might assume. In fact, she’s downright cheerful. Perhaps this explains why her pop art oeuvre is so playful and bright. “I’m in general very optimistic, very bright, very happy,” she admits. “There is somewhat of a disjuncture between how I am, conversationally, and what my energy is like and the art. I think the color in my work and a lot of the graphics are reflective of my personality, but the content is definitely on the more cynical end.”
Joy is also one of her major motivators for making art. “First and foremost, I make the work to make myself happy,” she says. “It’s the way I process my life and the world around me.”
Born in New York City in 1989, Simmons says that living in the “visual culture” of NYC influenced the development of her artistic sensibilities and her aesthetic. She studied art in high school and completed a dual major of Art History and Studio Art at Columbia University though art “was never promoted as a desirable career path” by her business-minded parents.
After graduating college, Simmons worked in advertising on both the creative and account ends. She saw creative strategy and marketing as the intersection of business and creativity. While working full-time, she found herself creating art in her free time, be it waking up early to do mixed media pieces, stopping into a print shop to experiment with silkscreen, or just sketching and drawing. Her take on stock certificates, on which she illustrated characters with snarky quips in quote bubbles in the style of Roy Lichtenstein, began selling. “Those were very timely and apropos,” she says. “They’re very small and people looking to own original pieces at an affordable level started collecting those. It really took off from there.”
Two years ago, she left the ad world and took up art full-time. But the instincts she honed during her five-year advertising career didn’t just evaporate. “Like anyone in any industry, you kind of start to forget how much it influences how you think and what you see and what you’re inspired by,” she says. “There is a formula to the way products are marketed. It can be anything from CPGs [Consumer Packaged Goods] to automobiles to hotels to luxury products. There is a baseline formula in the industry, whether it’s images and colors and words and those are definitely things I think about when incorporating them into my artwork. You kind of know what gets people’s attention and what gets people excited.”
The art world is certainly excited about her. In addition to Simmons’ solo show at Galerie Mourlot in October, she’ll take part in Context at Art Basel in Miami with the Bernard Markowitz Gallery.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d be making work that would sell and that people would talk about in the way that it’s currently being circulated,” she says. “I’ve been lucky and I feel blessed – as cliché as that sounds. I’m really happy people are talking about the work.”