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Steeped in history and race, Gary Simmons’ ghostly artworks are timeless — and all too timely

<i>MCA Chicago</i><br/>Simmons recreated this monumental chalk drawing of Philip Johnson's Glass House for the MCA Chicago's show
MCA Chicago
Simmons recreated this monumental chalk drawing of Philip Johnson's Glass House for the MCA Chicago's show

By Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

(CNN) — Thirty years ago, the conceptual artist Gary Simmons arranged eight pairs of gold-plated basketball sneakers in front of the minimal black lines of a police height chart, screenprinted on the walls of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The shoes were familiar brands — a mix of Nike, Adidas and Reebok — but devoid of human presence. Who did gallerygoers picture wearing them, and why? “Lineup” made implicit the stereotyping of young Black men, but it also made viewers complicit in their own assumptions. Decades later, the provocative installation is still all too relevant in a society where police and civilians make deadly decisions based on the clothes worn by Black youth.

“Lineup” is just one of the breakout works featured in the sweeping retrospective “Gary Simmons: Public Enemy,” which is currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago before traveling to the Pérez Art Museum in Miami later this year. A show of this magnitude is long overdue for Simmons, according to curators René Morales and Jadine Collingwood — it’s his first comprehensive museum show in 21 years.

“(Simmons) helped create the space for really challenging critical, conceptual art that addresses race,” said Morales, chief curator at the museum, in a video interview. “So many of us in the art world today are benefiting from that space…  It feels like a very important moment to take a step back and think about how we got here, and who helped us get here.”

Since the late 1980s, Simmons has worked prolifically in a wide range of mediums to illustrate how racism is baked into American life and visual culture. In his “Erasure” series, he’s produced chalk drawings of minstrel-inspired cartoon characters, which he wipes and smudges to ghostly effect, like memories that can’t be fully expunged. He’s warped facsimiles of familiar classroom objects with the symbols of white supremacy to show how early such prejudices can take root — a flagpole with its flag replaced by dangling nooses, or a children-sized Klu Klux Klan robes hung up on a small coat rack.

“Some of the really direct, politically-charged work was from the late 80s and very early 90s,” Simmons recalled in a video interview ahead of the show’s opening. “In some ways, it’s a testament to the work, standing up and having this longevity… But on the same note, it’s disconcerting to know that we haven’t moved past some of those issues. It’s very unfortunate that (they) are just as relevant today.”

Take “Disinformation Supremacy Board,” a 1989 installation of school desks arranged in front of tall, slender blank chalk boards, which are all white. Simmons was “thinking about the ways in which the histories that we are told are either narrow or restricted, especially when we’re thinking about the history of race relations in this country,” explained Collingwood.

The piece was directly reflective of the education he received growing up in Queens, New York, as a child of an immigrant family from the West Indies. And today, with classrooms across the United States becoming a renewed flashpoint for division, where books on race and gender are being banned, and curricula on Black history challenged and whitewashed, its urgency grows. As Morales describes it, Simmons’ work lays bare the “serious, unresolved traumas” of the country’s history.

“We’re at a crossroads now where we have to decide whether to look away and try to erase those histories, or confront them and make sure that they are not swept under the rug,” Morales said. “Because by forgetting these histories, we run the risk of repeating them. And again, I think that that lesson just feels more timely now than it ever has.”

For Simmons, the messaging is still highly personal. “I look at my daughter, who’s going into her senior year in high school, and she’ll soon vote,” he said. “And her still dealing with a lot of those challenges that I was talking about in the works 30-plus years ago is frustrating.”

Palpable absence

The “lifeblood” of Simmons’ art is erasure, he explained — what is absent from the work, or ephemeral in its existence. Sometimes, it’s a direct reference to erasure in popular culture, such as his paintings of the names of Black actors such as Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to receive an Academy Award for her role in the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind,” but was unable to sit with her co-stars at the awards due to segregation.

Other times, it’s the dispersal of the medium itself, as when Simmons experimented with skywriting a five-pointed star — a symbol that he has often incorporated to symbolize fading wishes or a sense of loss — over the MCA in 1996. The star has also nodded to specific points in history, such as Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line, a failed shipping line for the African diaspora that historians believe was sabotaged by US federal authorities.

“With every single work of Gary’s, you can take something so simple, like a star. And it has all these references in it, that you can like drill down into,” Collingwood said.

But broadly, what is visibly absent from Simmons’ work are human figures. Across all of the settings Simmon conjures, it’s a palpable omission that leaves room for a viewer’s interpretations, and their own associations and memories.

Simmons is fascinated by the complexities of memory and emotion — how we can observe the faultiness our own recollections and how murky collective histories can become as a result.

“No memory is a true memory, and I think that part of the thing with erasure is that it’s almost like the work exists between two places; it’s between representation and abstraction,” he explained. “And there’s blurring that happens in between those places, and the viewer is called on to fill those gaps or complete those lines.”

Layers and layers

For “Public Enemy,” Simmons recreated four monumental works in paint and chalk, including a trio called “1964” that originally showed at the Bohen Foundation in New York in 2006. Each of the three depicts an architectural structure or design element with darker implications, such as architect Philip Johnson’s 1940s modernist masterpiece Glass House — a building which was allegedly partially influenced by Polish homes stripped down during World War II, and a reflection of Johnson’s purported Nazi affiliation. Simmons renders each subject as if it were a specter, hazy and hovering as if constructed from smoke.

The artist made the chalk drawings and paintings on site, wearing gloves to glide his hands over the surfaces in long arcs. With Jay-Z or Eric B. & Rakim — his hype music, he says — blasting in the background, Simmons spent hours at a time blurring the marks he’s laid down.

“The wall drawings are almost like this residue, or souvenir, so to speak, of a performance that the viewer never really gets to see,” he said. “Physically, it’s a little more challenging than when I was (in my) late 20s, early 30s,” he added with a laugh.

“Public Enemy” continually explores the ghostly qualities of Simmons’ work, most literally in a series of oil and wax paintings depicting structures from famous 1960s and ’70s horror films such as “Amityville Horror” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” each rendered in the spectral film strip hues of black and gray. Simmons references films for many reasons, often for their thorny undertones about race and class, but the haunted house — a site of absence made present, where memory and history are embedded in the very bones of the structure — is an apt embodiment of his oeuvre.

“I love the idea of feeling like you’ve been someplace, even if you’ve never been there before — that déjà vu. I’m really drawn to those kinds of things,” he said, discussing how memory and history are interlinked. “I think Black people as a whole are haunted by their past.”

Mining the depths of Simmons work means familiarizing oneself with the visual lexicon — chalkboards, stars, Klan hoods, roses, cartoons, architecture — that he deploys, each with layered meanings.

But even without knowing the reference points, his subjects and motifs are meant to be universal. For Simmons, a melding of perspectives is the point, especially at a time when the country is fracturing politically and socially; his practice functions as an archive, in many ways, during a time of cognitive dissonance and erasure.

“This time is so divisive now… to that end, there seems to be less of an interest in having a conversation of two opposites,” Simmons said. “And that’s really unfortunate… because it’s such a tribal climate now that people just instantly close off to the possibility that they might understand where somebody else is coming from.”

Gary Simmons: Public Enemy” is on view now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The artist is also exhibiting new work at Hauser & Wirth in London, in the show “Gary Simmons. This Must Be the Place.”

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