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Gary Simmons: ‘Public Enemy’ at MCA Chicago

Written by on June 7, 2023

Pictured above: Gary Simmons, Step into the Arena (The Essentialist Trap) (detail), 1994. Wood, metal, canvas, Ultrasuede, pigment, ropes, and shoes; 85 × 120 × 120 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation, Photo: Sheldan C. Collins

The fresh 60+ piece survey (organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Pérez Art Museum Miami), which opened on June 13, is the most comprehensive look at Simmons’ work to date.

Gary Simmons. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Tito Molina/HRDWRKER

In my 2018 interview with abstractionist Howardena Pindell, she spoke of her varied artistic practices, employing glitter, paper, film, photography and collage, while at times utilizing geometric shapes.

She recalled that, in the 1960s and ’70s, “People within the community were speaking against me, maybe because my work was not didactic, that I was not serving the community.” The artist, who came of age during the Civil Rights Era, shared that while on a family roadtrip, her father decided to stop in northern Kentucky.

“He loved root beer, so we stopped by a root beer stand, and they brought the same mugs the whites used, but they had a big red circle in the bottom. And I remember asking my father, ‘What was this for?’ And, he basically said, ‘Because they give separate utensils, separate drinking glasses, and so forth to non-whites. And that would have a red circle to signify that this is a utensil or glass that a black person would use.’ And I was kind of stunned by that.”

“I grew up in Philadelphia. You didn’t run into that. You ran into what I call de facto segregation, ‘where it was assumed you knew your place’, in quotes, but this was the first time I’d come in contact with an actual symbol. And it was color. It was red, which stated, “You can only use this. You can’t use that.”

Thinking about the Black Arts Movement retrospectively, the movement is generally considered to be primarily figurative. And oftentimes, work that fits into this space is charged with creating a positive representation of Blackness. But even in those days, the motivation behind Pindell’s use abstraction was not devoid of cultural context.

During our talk, Pindell suggested, “Abstraction is an African art. There are the painted houses in Ndebeles. I really don’t know if I can explain it, because I was doing what I felt I needed to do at the time in terms of my work.”

I think about Pindell’s statement often (an expression of the underlying intent that may or may not be articulated on a museum wall) when I am viewing the wide body of work born since the times of the Black Arts Movement: work that pulls from both abstractionism and expressionism to express explicitly Black themes without such explicit figuration.

In the case of Public Enemy, an overview of nearly 70 works, created over 30 years of Simmons’ career, what becomes clear is that much can be gleaned just from the artist’s manipulation of source materials, such as in the case of Hold Up, Wait a Minute, 2021, which utilizes racist imagery from a vintage mid 20th Century cartoons (rendered nearly hieroglyphic in oil and cold wax), while referencing classic hip-hop call-and-response, to address the anxieties and turbulence of the contemporary moment.

Explaining his motivation to the Los Angeles Times, the New York-born artist shared, “I started to think about the cartoons that parents would sit you down in front of then walk away, almost letting the television babysit you. I was looking at Dumbo. The crows had this prominent role in teaching Dumbo how to fly, but they were highly racialized and very stereotypical. I talked to a cross-section of different people about their memories of Dumbo and I realized that the memories kind of broke down along racial lines. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is very interesting that people that look like me remember the racialized racist images and white folks didn’t.'”

Gary Simmons, Let Me Introduce Myself, 2020. Oil and cold wax on canvas; 96 × 72 in. The Vichie Collection. Photo: Jeff McLane

According to MCA Chicago Assistant Curator Jadine Collingwood, “Simmons emerged in the politically charged climate of the 1980s and ’90s, part of a generation of American artists who challenged the status quo by making work that confronted racial identity, cultural stereotypes, and the politics of representation. This exhibition affords an opportunity to reflect on the specificity of that watershed moment in American art history, while also considering how these issues continue to resonate in the present.”

Installation view, Gary Simmons: Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark, 2014-15. Prospect 3, New Orleans, Louisiana. October 25, 2014 – January 25, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles. © Gary Simmons. Photo: Scott McCrossen/FIVE65 Design.

One particularly compelling element of the show, Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark, 2014-ongoing, is a sculptural installation that calls to mind Jamaican Soundsystem culture, and was specifically inspired by record producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s recording studio. The wood framed piece was originally shown as part of the 2014 Prospect.3 biennial in New Orleans.

Simmons noted in 2022, “Dub music is in my DNA,” adding that he was inspired by “The Black Ark, where [Perry] created that sound. It’s also anchored in the city of New Orleans — a carpenter fabricator drove around the Tremé area and picked up wood from the houses that were destroyed, and we used that wood to make the speaker cabinets. I wanted to take some of the horror of [Hurricane] Katrina and turn it into something good.”

The MCA will be activating the work at different locations throughout Chicago, including the museum, Blanc Gallery, and the South Shore Cultural Center. Details of the activations are listed below.

Gary Simmons: Public Enemy was organized by James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator René Morales and Assistant Curator Jadine Collingwood with Curatorial Associate Jack Schneider, and is on view from June 13, 2023, through October 1, 2023.

Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark Activations:

Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark | Bonita Appleblunt

June 11, 2023

12-2 PM

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Chicago DJ Bonita Appleblunt will usher in the Members’ Preview of Gary Simmons: Public Enemy. Named one of the Chicago Reader’s Best Hip-Hop DJs, Bonita works to evoke the ephemeral, magnetic ambiance of a house party, weaving a sense of closeness, connection, and celebration among their audience. Guests are invited to commemorate the opening of Public Enemy in a moment that will remain a part of Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark’s history.

Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark | D-Composed @ 21Minus

June 17, 2023


Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Performing at 21Minus, MCA’s annual teen takeover event, D—Composed is a Black chamber music collective that is creating their own rules around access and reimagining safe, culturally-based spaces that reflect the Black experience.

21Minus is organized by Ahmad Bracey, Manager of Learning, School, and Youth Communities, Andres Regalado, Learning Coordinator, and Evelyn Sanford-Nicholson, Polk Brothers Associate Director of Learning, School, and Youth Communities.

Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark | Celebration of Chicago Social Dance History

July 22, 2023

Time to be announced

South Shore Cultural Center

This day of programs, hosted at the South Shore Cultural Center on Gary Simmons’s rearrangeable stage as part of his participatory artwork Recapturing the Memories of Black Ark, will trace the arc of Black social dance and nightlife culture in Chicago.  The program will feature conversations, demonstrations, and open floor sessions led by step, house, hip-hop, and footwork artists in partnership with Chicago Black Social Culture Map.

Talks will include covering the legacy of Sammy Dyer’s Dyerettes (a 1950’s chorus dance troupe) at the Club Delisa, one of the key Black Chicago clubs in the middle part of the 20th century and performances like Benji Hart’s Dancer as Insurgent, a 30 min solo exploring vogue as a tool for radical transformation.

This event is organized by Laura Paige Kyber, Curatorial Associate; Jeremy Kreusch, Associate Director of Learning; and Tara Aisha Willis, Curator of Performance.

Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark | Dorian Sylvain and Family & Blanc Gallery

August 5, 2023 and August 25-26, 2023

Time to be announced

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Blanc Gallery

Closing out the summer, this 3-day collaborative series features a set of conversations, performances, and dancing from an intergenerational group of Black creatives who have been instrumental in building the artistic landscape of Chicago from the 70s to the present.

For its Chicago iteration, the project is programmed collaboratively between the MCA, Blanc Gallery, and visionary Chicago artists, using the Simmons’ artwork to amplify the voices, sounds, and stories of an intergenerational group of Chicago-based Black creatives. Sited in the historically vital Black neighborhood of Bronzeville–whose former denizens included Ida B. Wells, Louis Armstrong, and Sam Cooke—Blanc Gallery is the ideal home for this collaboration.

This program is organized by Daniel Atkinson, Manager of Learning; Adult Interpretive Programs; Otez Gary, Community Engagement Manager; and Jeremy Kreusch, Associate Director of Learning.

Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark | ChiBrations celebrating 50 years of Hip-Hop

September 29, 2023

Time to be announced

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Continuing the work of unlocking Chicago’s performance history using Gary Simmons’s Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark, the MCA will collaborate with Sam Thousand for a special 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hip iteration of ChiBrations. The night includes some of the city’s contemporaries covering different lenses of Chicago’s hip-hop legacy, through conversation, freestyle, performance and more.

This program is organized by Otez Gary, Community Engagement Manager.

Written by Ayana Contreras

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