In Collaboration with Gary Simmons
Gary Simmons was born in New York City in 1964. His work discusses the historical and contemporary associations of race and class as they are experienced within American popular culture. Simmons references architecture, film, and text in his practice, which often includes the use of erasure. The visual and thematic connections between the work of Gary Simmons and Gordon Hookey sparked the idea of bringing together these two artists from opposite ends of the world. Below you may read Simmons' thoughts on specific works by Gordon Hookey.
Gordon Hookey, Ready to Rumble, 2020, Digital video
"I'm sort of fascinated by his use of the alphabet as a stand-in for certain political gestures and even figures in some cases. In this painting, you see the player at the bottom with the thought bubble that says, 'Black Cunt!' referring to the other player whose person is replaced by the letter 'C'. As it reoccurs throughout the body of work, it's interesting to see how he creates his own visual language coupled with actual text and language."
"In Black See from 2012, the use of the letter 'C' reoccurs and there are multiple figures at the bottom depicted as such. This letter 'C' becomes an identity and a target for this racist situation. There's an overt callousness in the way that players become targets of racism in international sports. In a number of sports, it's commonplace from country to country and it's not just isolated incidents. There's this Black-White racism that goes on, particularly with African players. As a huge fan of English football, you see it all over the place."
"Fans feel very comfortable hearing racist chants and literally throw bananas at certain players in some cases. It's almost looked over the shoulder and it's very pervasive."
"He has chosen to paint the hoods blue. There are these red, hateful eyes coming through there. But in this case, I think it's targeted at the viewer. In some of the other works that we looked at, the hooded figure is specifically pointing at someone and the phrase is targeted specifically at one player. In this piece, he’s looking straight into the viewer's eyes and you become the target of that hatred. You have this field of play, you have all of the fans or supporters behind the four Xs there. The supporters are obviously all White and you have this figure on the pitch yelling “Black Cunt” into the viewer's eyes. You get the feeling of what that targeted hate really feels like as a viewer because in the other works, you're almost like a voyeur and you're in this point of empathy for this player on a pitch being targeted and humiliated."
"In Victor, Solidarity, Peace and Freedom, you’ve got the World Cup, one of the biggest sporting events in the world, and it is very commonplace for players to experience all types of racism at these events, with the most extreme being hooliganism.
The way that they talk about players, the otherness, the way that African players are targeted by both the media as well as players on the pitch is unbelievable. In American sports, it's a little bit different. If you're looking at something like the NFL or the NBA, those sports are, for the most part, played by African-American players. However, the crowds at every arena who can afford tickets are probably ninety-five percent White. Most of the kids that actually play the game are actually coming through the ranks. They can’t even go see a Lakers game at five hundred dollars a ticket. You're not going to be sitting in the stands with your friends. So I think that it's a different kind of racism.
There's a crudeness to the way this piece is painted: the horizon line, the bird in the background, the sun in the upper left corner. It contains a youthful quality. He is really about hitting these figures and getting this issue out while using those kinds of signs that bring it back to something that's very familiar for the viewer. So someone that is looking at these paintings doesn't necessarily have to be a football fan to understand this pitch. He's labeled them clearly. It's clear that this is an international match. You don't even have to address the World Cup trophy at the bottom.
But at the same time, look at the brushwork, and the point of impact from where it leaves the Palestinian player's foot and the trail leading into the gold. It's intentional to paint it in this way. It's not some sort of so-called Outsider Art thing. This is a trained painter, that is very skilled and he's using the manner that he paints to draw the viewer to a place of familiarity."
"Some of these historically racist settings that he portrays – like the Rugby League players or the fires – have this way of moving through time, as well as these commentaries on the media and the treatment of colored bodies. The work has this fluidity and you don't have to even know about these events to have an access point into the work."
"I think that is one of the most difficult things for artists who use political gestures and markers as a source for their work. It tends to get locked inside a dogma from one political position, whichever one it is. He has a way of looking at an event and then translating it through his own visual lens. It's remarkable that a lot of the subject matter Hookey uses is from the early 2000s, yet it has such a strong resonance now. You're looking at a painting from 2003 or 2006, and the issues are as fresh today as are the brush strokes. At times with folks that paint like this, such as Leon Golub and Sue Coe, it can almost become a historicized bookmark for that period when it's so anchored to one particular political event. But in Hookey's case, the work transcends that and it is equally relevant in 2020, as it was in 2003.
He somehow managed to pull the rug out from anchoring it to a period and having it become frozen in time. The work has a life after the event."
"I have personally referenced Elvis a number of times. He's a very interesting figure from history and music who has taken his voice and moves straight out of Black Blues from the South. And, you know, he's treated as a God. But, Elvis in Hookey’s work is the Elvis from the latter part of his career. It's one of those images that people look at as the tragedy of Elvis, the man, when he was doing Las Vegas shows and completely under the influence of drugs. He's overweight and not the Elvis that you saw in early films that people were attracted to.
He's this tragic figure at the end of his career. A lot of Elvis impersonators have this tendency to use that Elvis because it's the most extreme: the hair, the sideburns, and the big belly with the Evel Knievel outfit. So the actual flip of taking this iteration of Elvis, and making him Black Elvis is an interesting idea.
Elvis appears again as a stand-in for the helicopter, called the ‘Elvis’ helicopter and it's used in this horrible fire. One of the strengths of Hookey's work is also his sense of humor. The helicopter contraption that he has on the back of Elvis is hilarious. This charged figure is reduced to a comical spectacle flying over this fire and putting it out. He is taking a serious issue and softening it with a sense of humor. For me, that's a much more accessible and palatable set of images than the actual scene itself. It’s an interesting commentary that goes beyond the literal fire and starts to talk outside of itself and into places of American popular culture."