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This Miami art exhibition doesn’t shy from the past. It wants to ‘punch you in the face’

People look at a piece of art.
Alie Skowronski
Miami Herald
People look at a piece called ‘Lineup’ during a walk through of the Gary Simmons Public Enemy exhibit on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, at Perez Art Museum in downtown Miami. According to the description, “the works in this room imply absent bodies, prompting visitors to conjure their own mental images who might populate these settings. By removing these figures from these scenes, Simmons suggests that, as Black bodies are sensationalized and marketed, the individuality of Black subjects is erased and replaced by racial stereotypes.”

Two white robes hang on the wall next to the boxing ring. Tap shoes dangle from the ropes. A pair of white boxing gloves, too pristine to throw a punch with, are carefully placed nearby.

The boxer — or the entertainer — is nowhere to be found. His footsteps are there, dancing inside the ring. The man is not.

Much of the artwork at Pérez Art Museum Miami’s latest exhibition, “Gary Simmons: Public Enemy,” is about what — or who — you don’t see.

“My work primarily focuses on ghosts,” Gary Simmons, the artist, said in a video on the exhibition. “Traces. Fragments. The space between abstraction and representation.”

The major solo show is the first deep dive into the New York-born, Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist’s prolific and ongoing career. Before opening in Miami during Art Week, the show debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in June of last year under the co-curation of René Morales, who previously worked at PAMM as its chief curator.

Simmons’ work touches on race, class, identity, masculinity and pop culture. His references vary from sports to architecture to Alfred Hitchcock to cartoons to social justice. On top of all that, he is known for his crisp, cool minimalism. His work says a lot with very little.

“It’s all about ideas, ideas, ideas,” said PAMM director Franklin Sirmans as he approached the ring.

The exhibition is ambitious and timely, spanning 30 years of his career. But perhaps the show is best summed up by the elegant cursive letters sewn onto the back of the boxer’s white robes.

“Us.” “Them.”

“Us & Them” and “Everyforward...” by artist Gary Simmons.
Lazaro Llanes
Courtesy of PAMM
“Us & Them” and “Everyforward...” by artist Gary Simmons.

The fine art of hip hop

Simmons was born in 1964 in Queens, New York. He earned his bachelor of fine art from the School of Visual Arts and his master’s from CalArts.

He emerged as an artist as a young man in the ‘80s and ‘90s, working in galleries to make money and creating his own art, Sirmans said. On the weekends, he was at punk concerts and clubs listening to a new genre called hip-hop.

True hip-hop fans will recognize the exhibition’s namesake Public Enemy, the politically minded rap group from Long Island. “’Public Enemy’ also refers to the Black male as being a targeted individual,” Simmons said in the video.

In a way, Simmons was living a “double life,” Morales said. He was steeped in a hip-hop culture that boldly discussed racism and inequality. But he spent his weekdays in high end galleries surrounded by art “that just didn’t have that kind of political urgency,” Morales said.

“He was seeing this incredible disparity, so he really thought it was important to try to bring some of that political energy, particularly around race and gender and other forms of identity, into his practice,” Morales said. ”And he was really struck by the sense of non-access to people of color in spaces of art at that time.”

Simmons’ response is on display in PAMM’s lobby. In a small gallery to the left of the museum entrance are some of his early works, his painted backdrops.

In 1993, Simmons would paint backdrops on large square canvases, roll them up, take them on the subway and set them up in public places around the city, like the Rucker Park basketball court in Harlem and the African Street Festival in Brooklyn. He offered people to stand in front of the backdrops to have two Polaroid pictures taken, one for them to keep and one for Simmons’ archives.

The result was thousands of Polaroids of young, Black New Yorkers posing and smiling in front of Public Enemy’s crosshair logo, Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” album art, giant dollar signs and the phrase “FAT POCKETS” in green bubble letters. If Instagram was around in the ‘90s, these would be all over your feed.

Polaroids of people posing in different places.
Alie Skowronski
Miami Herald
Photos from the Backdrop Polaroids project at Gary Simmons "Public Enemy" exhibit. Simmons painted backdrops starting in 1993 and brought them to places across New York City to photograph people in front of them.

“[He] would invite people of color to not just be represented, but to take control of their own image,” Morales said. “They could choose which backdrop, they could choose their pose, they can choose their own clothes.”

Backdrops are meant to have people in front of them. Like the rest of Simmons’ work upstairs, Morales said, the art prompts the question: who isn’t here?

The miseducation of Gary Simmons

The artwork in the first three galleries explores Simmons’ early years as a young artist in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s who was not shy about taking risks and making bold statements with a minimalist approach. The first artwork visitors see as they step into the main exhibition space is “Lineup,” a commentary on the incarceration and police targeting of young Black men.

A row of gold-plated sneakers stand in front of a police height chart. The suspected criminals are not there.

The “Miseducation” portion of the exhibition tackles how racism is taught and how Black students are let down.

“You gotta imagine, so 1989, he’s 24 years old or 25 years old,” Sirmans said. “He’s going to punk music concerts in New York City. He’s with his friends trying to think about how are we going to change the world. There’s a level of angst in the early body of work that comes from somebody who’s really trying to figure things out.”

A row of dirty desks littered with scribbles and paint splatter sit exactly in front of a row of white chalkboards with white pieces of chalk. It’s hard to discern the white of the boards from the white of the walls from the white of the chalk. In the corner, a comically tall white dunce cap sits, ready for some misbehaved student to be ridiculed with it.

But the dunce cap becomes more sinister when compared to the row of clothes hanging across from it: children-sized Ku Klux Klan robes. An open gate with two Klan gnomes on top ushers visitors into the next gallery.

This is not easy to look at. That’s the point.

“I don’t think art should always be comfortable,” Simmons said. “I think that it’s my job as the artist to take you out of your comfort zone and really question the way things operate and your relationship to the world.”

The next gallery focuses on Simmons’ “erasure” technique. He completes a drawing in chalk and smudges it with his hands, like a teacher hastily trying to erase something from a board. Drawings of nooses look hazy. Wide-grinned faces are blurred. Two cartoon birds, Heckle and Jeckle, are smudged to look like they’re pecking. Simmons directly references vintage cartoons that used racist caricatures and minstrel imagery, Sirmans said.

“I can erase the image, but I can’t totally erase the image. The trace is always there. That’s kind of, unfortunately, how history is,” Sirmans said. “We all are trying to progress as human beings and treat each other better, but there’s a history there that still needs to be reckoned with. And I think that’s what so much of Gary’s work is about. Reckoning with the history so that we can move forward in a way that is good for everyone.”

Us vs. Them

The show keeps its foot on the gas as color is introduced for the first time. An entire room is dedicated to “1964,” three drawings that take up three monochromatic walls. That was the year of the New York World’s Fair, the Civil Rights Act, the Alfred Hitchcock film “Marnie” and Simmons’ birth.

On the red wall, the spinning chandeliers from the Hitchcock film. On the green wall, the “masterpiece” glass house by architect Philip Johnson. On the blue, the pavilion structure Johnson designed for the World Fair, which was organized by the urban planner Robert Moses.

Simmons grew up in Queens with the pavilion structure (and what it represented) looming over him, Morales said. Moses, a known racist, razed Black and Latino neighborhoods to build parks and highways. The pavilion structure was built for people to get a good view of Moses’ handiwork, Morales said.

Simmons expands on the “us vs. them” theme with more film nods, like giant bobble heads of the hillbillies from the 1972 thriller “Deliverance.” But perhaps the most timely are the references to the original “Planet of the Apes” films. On a blood red background, the Hollywood sign burns.

A framed quote from “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” reads: “When we hate you, we’re hating the dark side of ourselves.”

Though these works were made several years ago, Sirmans noted how “eerie” they are. Simmons’ 30-year-old works are just as relevant today as they were when he debuted them.

On one hand, that speaks to Simmons’ poignant message. On the other, Morales said, “it’s tragic.”

“Public Enemy” came to Miami in a particularly tumultuous and divisive time in Florida’s education system. Morales pointed out the removal of LGBTQ books from libraries and the state’s decision to reject AP African American Studies courses. He hopes audiences leave the exhibition with a nuanced appreciation to learn from the past.

“Our history is on one hand, not reliable. Those accounts that we receive of history, in school or in any context, they are manmade,” Morales said. “There’s a difference between history and the past. And, at the same time, that serves as an invitation for us to go back and understand the past in a truer way.”

When asked which artwork was most emblematic of the show, Morales chose a hopeful one. “Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark” is an interactive sculptural installation of a wooden stage with a pyramid stack of speakers encased in wood. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Simmons salvaged wood from the Tremé neighborhood to create the artwork. The work’s title references reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Kingston studio, the Black Ark, which he built with scrap wood from the street, Morales said.

The “Black Ark” travels from venue to venue to be used for performances and events. At PAMM, it will be activated with music and poetry. Once again, Morales said, Simmons’ art isn’t about the stage and speakers. It’s about the people who use it.

“Each time it gets activated, it brings people together,” Morales said. “I think a big part of the idea is to, in a way, heal some of the trauma that is embedded in this wood, this material, and to heal it specifically through community, celebration, music, performance, poetry, art.”

As Simmons said in the exhibition video, healing is possible, but not without discomfort. Ignoring race and politics does not fix anything, he said. Addressing it does.

“Art isn’t always a pretty, nice thing,” Simmons said with a smile. “Sometimes it needs to punch you in the face.”

Where: Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd.
When: On view until April 28
Tickets: $18 for adults, $14 for ages 7-18, free for children under 6
Info: https://www.pamm.org/en/exhibition/gary-simmons-public-enemy/

This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.

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