Gary Simmons’ mini-survey featuring selects works of the last twenty years at Metro Pictures reveals a complicated history of race and culture in popular culture (cinema, sports, music, painting). That America’s culture industry can simultaneously perpetuate and challenge stereotypes, politics, and society through representation is the provocation here. I associate Simmon’s work with ghosts and it’s because they evoke the familiar, foreign, forgotten, but ever-present past. The power contained within this sort of representation can bring forth a critical understanding of the effects not only of occurrences on the scale of war but that of the everyday America; its contributions and confrontations. Like the horror film, this work is subversive in nature but revelatory in its origins.
It’s not simply about popular culture but our complicated societal culture as well, including lynchings. The entrance gates, with an inversion of the racist connotations of the “law n jockey” by replacing the figures with the Klu Klux Klan, are an imposing welcome to Gary Simmons’ works that conflate popular culture imagery with their historical associations. Particularly on point is Fuck Hollywood, a row of shoeshine stands with beautifully embroidered towels of celebrity figures like Elvis. The entertainment industry is built upon the mining of others (an issue still very much relevant today) and this work bluntly pits the representation of the black working class against a system that simultaneously exploits and neglects.
Simmons’ ghostly, vibrating, cinematic paintings are a personal favorite of mine but when combined with other media, their qualitative power compounds greatly. His dark paintings that are static moving images, caught in an in-between state, in-between frames and movement, the haunting ghosts of American history reemerging and reconfigured as a critical reminding marker of where we have been and where we have yet to go as a nation. The erasure technique that he applies to create his simultaneously static and moving imagery recalls the smoke of ghosts, like faint hands from the past reaching out, through the scene, through the canvas, into the present. One painting screams “House of Pain” with skulls behind it while the painting of the cinema (Bonham Theatre, 2010) stilly spins; a static film still of itself. History never goes away in the promise of a new day.
The embalmed objects of our cultural past are on display as memento-mori: a moonshine set up, boxing gloves, and boom box with record crates. They are starkly white and completely immobilized relics of the last century. But it’s his latest piece, a multi-panel plywood sculpture mounted with drawings of 1930s fight posters, that near perfectly conflates all sorts of media (sculpture, paintings, design, sports) and encapsulates the message contained within this exhibition. Significantly, this work includes a painting of a dangling old-school boxing microphone so elongated and furiously still. This mic looks like a backbone, in fact it is a backbone, a stand-in for the sport, racial and political history, and the artist’s oeuvre to date. To me, this look back at Gary Simmons’ own past is actually quite an exciting look into the future (his, ours, America’s).
Installation views, 2012. Metro Pictures, New York.