On ViewMuseum Of Contemporary Art Chicago
June 13–October 1, 2023
For Gary Simmons, who observed the vast disconnect between the political nature of hip hop and the contemporary, predominantly abstract, art of the 1980s, the union of these two modalities engendered an artistic language that could speak simultaneously to multiple publics. Neither didactic nor illustrative, but rather legible and generative, Simmons’s work prompts viewers through subtly affective clues to examine their relationship to those symbols from popular culture that he re-forges into biting social commentary.
Unveiling both our inherited biases and our dubious collective memory, which lurk like an ever-present ghost haunting our experience of what may otherwise be considered innocuous cultural byproducts, Simmons reveals, in the words of curator René Morales, the “difference between the past (what happened), history (what is written down), and collective memory (what is remembered).” Loosely arranged in chronological order, from the very late 1980s to the present, the approximately seventy works that comprise Gary Simmons: Public Enemy at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago evidence the artist’s uncommon ability to reveal those insidious aspects of American life—all aspects of American life?—that harbor and perpetuate racial prejudice.
The first couple rooms of the exhibition, which address the stereotypes endemic to major league sports and the criminal justice system, as well as the ways in which white supremacy is foisted on the American public from an early age, feature his earliest works. These fuse the efficiency of conceptualism and the assisted readymade with a highly readable, though some might say provocative, approach to history-telling. While there is little question that Step Into the Arena (The Essentialist Trap) (1994)—a boxing ring hung with tap shoes and amended with a dance step pattern on its floor—points to the performativity inherent to the sport and its frequent embodiment of racial tensions, there also remains much room for other kinds of signification. One might consider the relationship between the cakewalk dance illustrated in Simmons’s flowchart, which was popularized by enslaved people comically mocking through exaggeration the formality of slaveholders’ dances, and the future adoption of that very dance by white minstrels in blackface—an effective act of self-satire, whether conscious or not. Such a twisted history is, surely, emblematic of our country’s relationship to Black culture writ large, whereby the cultural products of those who are othered are inevitably appropriated and spectacularized for white enjoyment or gain.
Across the room, Lineup (1993), with its row of gold-plated basketball sneakers placed below the screen-printed bands that measure height in a police lineup, serves as a litmus test for racism. This work, more than any other, produces a moment of healthy discomfort. While the rest of the exhibition deals in similar political histories and social truths, this is the work that most immediately jogs a visceral awareness of the viewer’s own position and culpability in the perpetuation of a prejudiced culture.
School desks face narrow white chalkboards, the same color as the wall (Disinformation Supremacy Board, 1989); a white flag made up of a row of nooses hangs near the ceiling (Noose Flag, 1991); an impossibly tall white dunce cap sits on a stool in the corner (Big Dunce, 1989); a coat rack sporting child-sized robes and hats of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (Six-X, 1989/2022) stands waiting for its wearers; and iron gates adorned not with stone gargoyles or lions, but rather Klan figures (Klan Gate, 1992) frame the doorway of the exhibition’s second room. This sly retooling of the common trappings of a classroom with the iconic symbolization of the public secret that is the Ku Klux Klan shines a light on the politics of (in)visibility: the quiet power that comes from the covert indoctrination of white supremacy in the minds of America’s school children—shaping beliefs and behaviors—and the outsize power that comes from inciting fear through intimidation and control.
The invisibility of popular culture’s formation of the American public psyche is a theme that recurs throughout the exhibition. Beginning with Disinformation Supremacy Board, which evidences not only history’s myopically white perspective but the sheer impossibility of its rewriting, Simmons’s use of chalkboards has become not just a medium but a motif. While they show the role of education in the formation of cultural memory and perpetuation of “history,” the chalkboards also underscore the act of erasure and those stories, truths, and culprits that have been wiped away.
Often signifying exactly what it suggests, Simmons’s use of erasure itself has served varied functions over the course of his career: it has been applied to cartoons from the 1930s and ’40s; to imagery from sci-fi and horror movies, such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror, that perhaps better than any other genre allegorize the state of racial dynamics in America; and to discrete symbols and historic references, such as his oft repeated shooting stars. In paintings, for example, from the late 2000s that depict sites around Los Angeles at which Conquest of the Planet of the Apes—an allegory for the Watts Uprising—was filmed, the upward motion of Simmons’s hand as it moves across the wet paint outlining these sites make it look as though they are on fire. In a more recent body of work, the blurred effect signals the scrolling motion of cast names as they appear and disappear on screen—and from history.
Admittedly, the latter works, such as Body and Soul (2017) and Law of the Jungle (2017), with their oblique filmic references to Hattie McDaniel, Bill Robinson, Paul Robeson, Rex Ingram and others, necessitate further investigation. Did you know, for example, that Hattie McDaniel had to receive her Oscar for Gone with the Wind in a segregated awards ceremony? I didn’t. Despite presenting only names, never bodies or visages, here Simmons foregrounds the humanity at the heart of his project, prompting us to encounter and empathize with individuals, not just confront the institutional structures and systemic racism that shaped them.
It is on this very human note that Simmons leaves us, listening to the music performed on the star-studded stage that is Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark (2014–ongoing), or taking a photo in front of his Polaroid Backdrop Project (1993). Here, in the present, we see not darkness, but light, life, and joy.
From the chronological arc that structures the exhibition, what rises to the surface is Simmons’s continually evolving response to the state of sociopolitical discourse. As the critique of culture has become inseparably fused with culture itself, the once provocative methods by which Simmons articulated his own commentary have given way to a subtler and more nuanced illumination of those murky depths that undergird American life. His methods thus change alongside our abilities to receive his ingenious and yet heartfelt assessment of a fucked up nation.