Magazine article Artforum International

Gary Simmons

Magazine article Artforum International

Gary Simmons

Article excerpt

The so-called blaxploitation film genre courted controversy during its meteoric rise (and equally precipitous disappearance) in the 1970s. Marketed specifically to black audiences and defined by unprecedented depictions of black heroes fighting a villainous white establishment, these films were, on the one hand, hailed for offering revolutionary representations of black power, and, on the other, condemned for perpetuating racial stereotypes and glamorizing violence, drugs, and extramarital sex. Though Gary Simmons made no attempt to resolve the paradoxes of blaxploitation in his exhibition "Black Marquee," the show offered an engaging reflection on the pleasures, limitations, and transgressions of the genre in light of the institutional conditions and representational possibilities of commercial cinema--both then and now.

The show comprised two pieces. For Credit Roll, 2010, the artist painted the walls of the gallery's front room and hallway dark brown, then stenciled (in white) the titles of more than sixty blaxploitation films (the sheer proliferation of which is something of a revelation in itself)--not just classics such as Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Sung, Shaft, and Super Fly, but many more obscure ones too, including Cotton Comes to Harlem and Super Soul Brother. He then blurred the still-wet words so that they appeared to drift, like credits down a screen. Countering the visuality of film, the work thus foregrounded the role of language in the collective processes of representing identity, racial or otherwise. If such operations depend on the threshold of linguistic legibility for forming expressions of solidarity and community, it is at this same point that signifiers of identity are at risk of hardening into essentialist concepts and stereotypes (the latter originally referred to the technique for fixing movable type onto a single metal plate). But Simmons insists on the discursive nature of identity, interrupting its tendency toward ossification. Indeed, by blurring the film titles, he suggested here the contingency of perception--its limitations and relativity, whether individual or historical--and the ultimately indeterminate nature of the categories race, class, and gender.

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Language was also highlighted in Greetings and Salutations, 2010, the show's other work, an audio collage of dialogue excerpted from blaxploitation sound tracks, which was broadcast from three waist-high white fiberglass replicas of drive-in movie speakers. …

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