A retrospective at MCA Chicago studies the artist’s storied career, crossing mediums to prod at questions of race, class, and popular culture

In 1993, Gary Simmons wanted to flip the switch on traditional portraiture. “Historically speaking, portrait photography is dictated by the artist,” he told the Art Newspaper in 2020. The structure of his Backdrop Project, on the other hand, would let the subject control the way they’d be portrayed; Simmons painted scenes that referenced CD covers from the golden age of hip-hop: Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s Ill-Street Blues, and Public Enemy’s infamous crosshairs logo. He hung them up in two locations in New York—the African Street Festival in Brooklyn, and a Harlem basketball court—and invited passersby to pose for a photo with them. Simmons sweetened the offer, promising a free Polaroid to anyone who participated. The results are emblematic of a moment in history before digital cameras and cell phones offered the ability to create and see a photo in an instant. Subjects of all ages stopped for Simmons, some with big smiles on their faces, while others flexed their biceps.

Public Enemy didn’t just serve as a reference for Simmons’s Backdrop Project; it’s also the title of a retrospective following four decades of his work, on view at the MCA Chicago through October 1. “Public Enemy refers to, of course, the hip-hop group,” said the museum’s James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator René Morales. “[And] there’s an old James Cagney movie about gangsters, Public Enemy. But it’s also talking about the criminalization of Black men in our society, through stereotypes. Often, young Black men are made out to be [the] public enemy.”

Simmons’s work comments on the systemic racism Black men face in American society, from their formative years through adulthood. In his most pivotal body of work, the Erasure series, the artist weaponizes chalk, depicting racist cartoon characters from blackface minstrelsy, or caricatures of individuals in tribal clothing—a symbol of the American education system. He then erases them, leaving them almost haunted.

Each work in the exhibition encourages viewers to stop and think for a moment about racism—what these objects and pop culture references symbolize. They range from small drawings to life-sized sculptures, like Step Into the Arena (The Essentialist Trap), a quarter-scale boxing ring adorned with hanging shoes. You might think of Joe Louis, the heavyweight champ who beat Max Schmeling, a white German boxer, in their 1938 rematch, in the lead-up to the height of Nazi Germany.

In Everlast Champion and Lineup, Simmons uses gold-plated sneakers as a statement to their value to Black men—and the way that the media sensationalized stories of crimes committed in order to own a pair of coveted Nikes, Adidas, or Reeboks. “These stories were blown out of proportion, and were—in a lot of ways—kind of a dog whistle,” said Morales.

The exhibition’s “classroom” served as a setting for viewers to contemplate the school system and its racial biases. Noose Flag, for instance, is a sculpture of a flagpole, where young Americans pledge their allegiance; but in the flag’s place, Simmons hangs a series of nooses. Disinformation Supremacy Board similarly employs its environment: five school desks situated before 10 blank chalkboards, provoking observers with the way that history books often edit out the darkest parts of America’s past. Klan Gate is a large black gate, flanked by two brick columns—each with a tiny Klansman on top.

Simmons’s fascination with film is evident within his oeuvre. He turns the two rednecks who assault four Atlanta businessmen, canoeing down a remote Georgia canal in the 1972 film Deliverance, into white bobbleheads for the 2001 sculptures Here, Piggy, Piggy. “I love the idea of the kind of deconstruction of the self in the film,” said the artist. “These guys represent all of those… male stereotypical fears of others: They go into this forest, kind of a backwoods thing, with the intent of going on this new trip. And then it all starts to go sideways when they realize they’re in a different society, and the rules are very different. I really like to play with those kinds of moments.”

Amityville, a five-paneled work, takes its title from the 1979 Amityville Horror film series; Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a similar work. Law of the Jungle displays the names of two actors who experienced racism within the film industry: Hattie McDaniel, who earned an Oscar for playing a maid in Gone With the Wind, wasn’t able to attend the ceremony because she was Black. And Bill Robinson, despite being the highest-paid Black actor in the first half of the 20th century, was called Uncle Tom by critics. Another series of text-based paintings references Planet of the Apes, with phrases from the film like, “NOW WE WILL PUT AWAY OUR HATRED.” “Its premise is more or less… an allegory for the Black uprising that happened a few years prior in 1965,” said MCA Chicago assistant curator Jadine Collingwood.

Finally, there’s Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark—a wall of speakers inspired by the studio of iconic record producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, made with material sourced from Treme in New Orleans. They’re stacked atop one another in a triangle formation, acting as a stage for gathering, performance, and reflection. The museum will host a series of conversations and music acts on the platform.

Although Simmons won’t be there to shoot Polaroids for a continuation of Backdrop Project, visitors are still encouraged to make the work their own, taking portraits in front of the backgrounds—and, of course, posting them to social media, tagging #GarySimmons and @mcachicago.

Gary Simmons: Public Enemy is on view at MCA Chicago through October 1.