LOS ANGELES — For over three decades, artist Gary Simmons has been making work that urgently speaks to the issues of our time, as well as centering historical narratives within the United States’s visual lexicon. These narratives have informed and engendered systemic racism, structural violence, and class disparities. Positioning questions around identity, class, race, and representation, Simmons references popular culture, science fiction, and cartoon characters, creating points of access that give the viewer an on-ramp of the familiar so that they can commune with the work. This year is turning out to be a busy year for the Los Angeles-based artist, with Gary Simmons: Public Enemy at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery, and a new documentary by The Artist Profile Archive

Gary Simmons (photo by Tito Molina/HRDWRKER, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)

Raised in New York City, Simmons was pulled to art from a young age. However, it was not the artist’s first intended career. “I was raised to be a baseball player,” he shared with me during a recent interview. “My dad was a well-known cricket player in the West Indies and when we moved to the United States, he instantly became a Jackie Robinson fan.” Simmons’s father, who worked professionally as a fine art printer for photographers, saw the aptitude his son had for the game: “He would throw the ball [with me] like any father would with their son, and I guess he recognized that I had some sort of coordination and talent for playing ball and he pushed me further into it.” Following an injury that left Simmons faced with reconstructive surgery, he decided to pursue his other passion, making art. “The two things I love to do are play ball and make art,” he said. Though the pursuits could not feel more different to most observers, for Simmons one has always informed the other, noting the discipline and solitude required in both fields. “The amount of practice it takes, the work ethic you have to have, and the dedication to endless hours of working by yourself and enjoying being by yourself, to this day, that is the part I enjoy the most.” 

Simmons’s work possesses a sense of in-betweenness, which, according to the artist, is exactly where he wants the viewer to be. “Not to try to create a sound bite, but I think that all the good shit happens in between those spaces. It is the stuff that happens in between the cracks, there is something concrete about being in one place or the other. The interesting thing,” he added, “is where it is murky or not so clear, it forces you to use your creativity and your critical voice to fill in the holes and the gaps and make those lines clear.” This in-betweenness is seen in various ways throughout Simmons’s oeuvre and is well represented in his MCA Chicago show, curated by René Morales and Jadine Collingwood, with Jack Schneider. Take for example the moments of implosion versus explosion, which are visible in “boom” (1996/2003), a site-specific recreation of a 1996 wall drawing that reads like a cartoon explosion emanating from the gallery wall. This work, and many of Simmons’s other wall drawings, are ghostly with the velvety texture of the chalk applied to the painted surface; they border on the hypnotic. Beneath that sumptuous visual experience is a sharply pointed institutional critique. This act of mark-making upon the structure of the museum becomes paradoxically permanent within its impermanence. Yes, it can be painted over and disappeared, yet it cannot be removed — it becomes permanently embedded within the membrane of the museum, forcing the institution to cede its absolute power and control over its contents. It is an act of artistic dissidence by infiltrating the museum and critiquing it from inside its very walls. When asked if that was his intent, Simmons said emphatically, “Absolutely it is.” 

Installation view of “boom” (1996/2003) at the MCA Chicago during Gary Simmons: Public Enemy (photo by Shelby Ragsdale, courtesy © MCA Chicago)
Gary Simmons, “Lineup” (1993), screenprint with gold-plated basketball shoes, 114 × 216 × 18 inches, © Gary Simmons (photo by Ron Amstutz, courtesy MCA Chicago)

We can also feel this in-between approach in Simmons’s signature erasure technique, in which he creates drawings, often of vintage cartoon characters, including the recurring use of the racial caricature of Bosko (created by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising in the 1920s), with chalk and/or paint that he pushes, smudges, and blurs across the surface of chalkboards, walls, and canvases. The physical process he employs obfuscates the image just enough to render it simultaneously visible and obscured, creating a specter of an image or the suggestion of the body when the body is not physically present. That specter of the body is exemplified in his work, “Lineup” (1993), which depicts the backdrop of a police lineup height chart, with a series of gold-plated basketball shoes in front of it, featuring brands like Adidas and Nike, gleaming in the gallery’s light. By removing the corporeality of the figure and referencing racial profiling used by the police, Simmons acknowledges the public’s own internalized and implicit biases and forces the viewer into a confrontation with them.

Throughout Simmons’s career, in which he has shown at some of the world’s most renowned institutions, the artist still embraces a DIY feel to his work, allowing the creative process to be seen, pushing against the sterility and commercialism of traditional white cube museum and gallery spaces. He insists on taking risks despite the possibility of failure, echoing this affirmation to upcoming generations of artists and cultural workers alike, “Because I think some of the best stuff happens in the mistakes when you leave them exposed like that, you’re leaving open your own imperfections and insecurities.” Simmons leans into this discomfort, in his approach to art making and in the subject matter he explores, foregrounding the unknown as part of the process. One of his hopes is that the viewers will walk away with more questions than answers, about the narratives he depicts, what art can and cannot be, and who defines it.

Gary Simmons, “Rogue Wave” (2021), oil and cold wax on canvas, 108 × 120 inches, © Gary Simmons (courtesy MCA Chicago)
Installation view at the MCA Chicago during Gary Simmons: Public Enemy (photo by Shelby Ragsdale, courtesy © MCA Chicago)
Installation view at the MCA Chicago during Gary Simmons: Public Enemy (photo by Shelby Ragsdale, courtesy © MCA Chicago)

Erin Joyce is a writer and curator of contemporary art and has organized over 35 exhibitions across the US. She was a winner of the 2023 Rabkin Prize for arts journalism from The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin...

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