New York

Gary Simmons

Metro Pictures

Popular culture has long been one of this country’s leading exports. A designer label for vibrancy, inventiveness, and creativity pressed into double duty as a trademark of freedom and individualism, it is a means of marketing American identity both at home and abroad. Contemporary popular culture is a euphemism not only for youth culture, but for African-American youth culture. While we might feel cozy enough with the sanitized images MTV packages, there remains plenty of surplus anxiety over the radicality of today’s youth, particularly when we notice that we are no longer counted among them. And when their lyrics, lingo, and looks transform the face of popular culture, like it or not, we’ve got a problem if we can’t at least interpret it—let alone fully relate to it.

All of this pertains to Gary Simmons’ recent exhibition of paintings and photographs, works that tug at those definitions to the extent that they suggest they aren’t to be viewed simply as painting or photography but as surrogates for another activity. Concerning that other activity, one might say that Simmons has brought the new spirit of street life in Harlem down to SoHo. Inspired by murals on 125th Street, Simmons created a series of paintings that function as backdrops, which he installed in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant during a community street festival. Participants were invited to pose in front of a backdrop of their choice and be photographed. Two Polaroids were made, one for the participant and one for the artist who, in turn, installed them in a larger grid in the gallery, together with the unstretched, grommeted backdrops.

As straight painting, Simmons’ canvases aren’t great, nor do his Polaroids constitute anything particularly significant in the field of photography. What is of interest, however, is the iconography of the backdrops, their sources of inspiration, and their implications for African-American youth culture and the institution of art. References are given to Dr. Dre and Public Enemy, together with emblematic slogans such as “wrong nigga to fuck with,” and “time 4 sum aktion” that are rendered in graffiti style and reflect the confrontational attitude of rap music. Elsewhere, through combinations of text (“Roots,” “Original Man,” “Fat Pockets”) and images (marijuana leaves, dollar signs, a Nubian Nefertiti), a countercultural narrative emerges with all the simplicity and benign appeal of advertising logos, yet one that is instantly recognizable as antitraditional, antiwhite, and anti–middle America.

In contemporary artspeak, Simmons’ work comes under the general heading of multiculturalism. Unlike many ethnic artists who deliver an institutional critique designed both to expose the bias of the art establishment and to appeal to its conscience, Simmons has other tactics. Maybe he figured out that the institution has no conscience but that it has vested interests in the appearance of being liberal and, at the same time, knowledgeable about popular culture. What Simmons delivers is “insider information” without the instructional apparatus that one finds, for example, in Renée Greene’s presentations of hip-hop culture. Rather, he emphasizes the “outsider” position of the institution in relation to Pop art—the very institution that so long has so often labeled work by ethnic and minority artists as “outsider art.” It might just be that if the institution can’t saddle up to what is rapidly becoming mainstream, export-quality popular culture (and hence, the source of contemporary Pop art) and at least pretend to do the “blazay blah” with the brothers and sisters and young wiggers, it will find itself in the unenviable position of not being able to explain the significance of a Nubian Nefertiti rather than a Marilyn, or of a gun scope rather than a bull’s-eye target, or of Dr. Dre rather than Dr. Pepper and, instead, having to account for its own ignorance.

Jan Avgikos