Gary Simmons, installation view of “Public Enemy,” with (left to right): Hold Up, Wait a Minute, 2021, oil and cold wax on canvas, 96 x 72 in.; Untitled, 2001, latex enamel on foam, fiberglass, copper tubing, and wood, 84 x 36 x 47 in.; and Let Me Introduce Myself, 2020, oil and cold wax on canvas, 96 x 72 in. Photo: Lazaro Llanes

Gary Simmons


Peréz Art Museum

Blurred minstrel cartoon characters, sports paraphernalia, chalkboards and classrooms, dub, punk, and house music, as well as triggering signifiers of racial hate and violence—from nooses to Klu Klux Klan imagery—conceptualize the intertwined issues of race, culture, education, and politics that have remained at the heart of Gary Simmons’s work for the past 30 years. While its subject matter is challenging, complex, and at times horrendous, Simmons’s recent career-spanning exhibition, “Public Enemy,” elegantly and sparely presented approximately 70 works across numerous rooms, allowing audiences to focus on and fully engage with his artistic and poetic prowess. The artist’s questioning of how our shared past is remembered and which histories we’ve been taught to forget—why and by whom, and what is at stake—was especially timely in its presentation in a state whose governor and extremists have been leading the charge for the destruction of education and a war on truth through censorship, book banning, and whitewashing how American history is taught.

Simmons’s decades-long “Erasure” works are among his most powerful. Created through the intense physical effort of rubbing and blurring drawings on canvas with his hands to create ghost-like images, these monumental pieces, re-created on site, cannily took on the appearance of chalk on blackboards, and seem to reference the instability of memory, cultural consciousness, and histories that can be slighted and buried but never fully disappeared. Installed throughout the exhibition, they began with the 60-year-old artist’s introduction to cultural racism through the stereotypical images of Black characters on the Saturday morning and after-school cartoons of his youth. In a recent video for his gallery responding to how prejudices entrenched in entertainment seep into our lives, Simmons stated: “There’s no way to actually erase a stereotype. It’s always going to have some traces left behind…that fever violence to get rid of it is a futile experience, because you can’t get rid of it.”

Other chalk drawings focused on architecture with a darker or haunted underbelly, including three works from Simmons’s series “1964” of Philip Johnson’s structures and his alleged Nazi ties. And the artist’s dreamy (or nightmarish) film strip paintings in oil and wax of sites of cinematic hauntings—such as the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—demonstrated a shift in media, but not message.

In several works, sports paraphernalia was both elevated and contextualized within the realities of Black life. Eight pairs of gold-plated basketball sneakers were placed before a Minimalist screenprint line drawing of a police height chart in Lineup (1993). Boxing, a recurring fascination of Simmons’s, was represented with a pair of gold-embroidered boxing gloves (Everforward…, 1993); two robes (Us & Them, 1991); and a boxing ring with white pigment on the floor choreographing the ghost of a fight (Step into the Arena [The Essentialist Trap], 1994). Lurking in these works are the race politics of the spectacle and the exploitative brutality of the blood sport.

The most horrific images in the exhibition confronted historical and ongoing racism in education through the symbols of white supremacy. Entering through Klan Gate (1992), one encountered nooses on a flagpole, child-sized Klu Klux Klan robes and dunce caps, and a classroom installation of school desks and all-white chalkboards too tall and narrow to disseminate information. By contrast, The Reading Room, one of the exhibition’s many outstanding programs, was developed by the education department with the artist, local historians, and schoolteachers in response to book banning and the erasure of marginalized voices and critical race theory.

Creating in a range of mediums—sculpture, drawing, painting, collage, installation, music, and performance—and refusing to be limited by any genre, Simmons is not unlike activist and artist David Wojnarowicz, who used whatever medium best delivered his message. While ignorance and violence persist in society, like an album skipping on a turntable, in Simmons’s provocative art and call to action, the issues will not be erased.