John Sims: Confronting Fear and the Urgency of Survival

John Sims A Date with Fear 2020
A Date with Fear: A Self Portrait by John Sims, March 2020 

How do you deal with fear and anxiety? How do you combat something deadly that’s invisible? How does an artist deal with the COVID-19 pandemic? These are just some of the questions artist John Sims has been contemplating since the Coronavirus outbreak. Known for varying bodies of work that deal with everything from societal conflict, racial tension, and mathematical algorithms, John Sims is probably the ideal artist to confront the Coronavirus pandemic.

Pablo Picasso Guernica
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Artists have always dealt with crises and death. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, from 1937 is his anti-war statement. This mural-sized painting depicts the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, which was the location of history’s first aerial saturation bombing by the Nazis on a civilian population. Picasso’s outrage at the murder of more than 1,600 people coalesced in this revolutionary artwork. The scale envelopes the viewer and puts them in the middle of the carnage. In his signature cubist style and mostly a black, white and grey palette, he depicts the people of the village at their moment of suffering or death.

Keith Haring, Ignorance Fear
Keith Haring, Ignorance=Fear, 1989

Pop artist and activist Keith Haring, best known for his line-art figures that began as random graffiti art all over New York City, faced the AIDS crisis head-on in his legendary illustrations, and he himself succumbed to AIDS-related complications in 1990. Haring developed his own unique visual vocabulary that included barking dogs, flying saucers, and his “radiant baby.” Haring was one of the first artists to move beyond the streets and galleries and apply his work to “merchandise.” But Haring’s most notable works are the sexually charged images he created that served as advocacy for safe sex and AIDS awareness as the disease claimed hundreds of thousands of lives at its peak in the early 1990s, His piece, Ignorance=Fear, is just one example of the many AIDS-themed works Haring created and which had a tremendous impact on bringing visibility and awareness to this devastating disease.

Breugel Triump of Death
Peter Breugel the Elder, Triumph of Death, 1562

With subject matter that seems similar to what 2020 sometimes feels like, Triumph of Death from 1562, by Flemish artist Peter Breugel the Elder is a haunting panorama of the devastation of the Black Death, which ravaged much of Europe during the Middle Ages. Breugel litters the composition with everything from an army of skeletons wreaking havoc across a blackened, desolate landscape, to peasants, nobles, and soldiers all suffering or dying as a result of the pestilent disease. It’s a macabre snapshot into the past and a reminder that widespread deadly disease continues to be something we have to deal with well into the 21st century.

For John Sims, confronting the Coronavirus started with creating a self-portrait, which serves as a visual metaphor for fear. He asks, how do we confront fear? How do we process it? How does one visualize it? The self-portrait is John’s way of artistically representing his fear and anxiety around COVID-19. It’s a perfectly composed image with both metaphorical and literal elements, all symbolic, all deliberate.

John Sims A Date with Fear 2020
A Date with Fear: A Self Portrait by John Sims, March 2020 

The rose was an important part of the self-portrait – to create a sense of tension and make you go, “Whoa, how do we protect that?” 

John Sims

He stands against an ominous sky surrounded by Coronavirus cells, both in and out of focus, near and far away in the composition. John utilized crowdsourcing on Facebook, polling his audience on what word they would write on their mask, but ultimately decided to go with his first impulse, the word, “Hello,” because it humanizes the mostly apocalyptic composition. The reflections in John’s glasses are also visual symbols, a cemetery in one lens (looming death from the disease), and in the other lens a reflection of the earth (a metaphor for how COVID-19 is affecting the entire planet). He wears an upside-down American flag pin on the lapel of his black jacket, a symbol of the country’s fractured and problematic politics. And finally, the red rose, which is a symbol of protecting love and moving forward.

Another thing that I am dealing with here is the dichotomy between visibility and invisibility. It is a theme I treated before with the Confederate Flag. It’s all over the place, so we get numbed to it and you have to go back and make an effort to think of the context. The mind normalizes toxicity. I wanted to push back. You don’t want to normalize this – so you can keep that fear. This was a very natural continuation of my work about confronting the icons of American white supremacy.

John Sims
John Sims, Confederate Gothic, 2004
John Sims, Confederate Gothic, 2004

Later this week, we will share a recent (virtual) studio visit with John Sims in which he shares how A Date With Fear evolved into a multi-sensory video game, called Korona Killer, and he discusses how this multimedia playable project relates to his other artistic projects.

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