Artist Uses OJ Shirts in Exhibit
By Dylan Taylor-LehmanPosted Aug 29, 2012
Columbus artist Martin Hugo looked pensive as he smoked a cigar on his stoop, reflecting on his upcoming exhibit.
“Even when I was a kid, I felt like he was innocent,” he said. “I don’t know why. For some reason, that was the side I took. I think he’s innocent, 70 percent sincerely.”
Hugo is referring to the verdict of the OJ Simpson trial, an event that dominated the national news almost a generation ago, from 1994 to 1995. But Martin isn’t as interested in the workings of the trial as he is in the merchandise that resulted, an interest that can be quantified by the amount of OJ Simpson T-shirts he’s collected. The shirts are so visually powerful and so profoundly weird that the public deserves to see them: at 7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 31, Hugo will be showing his collection at Skylab Gallery, 57 E. Gay St.
“I think these shirts really irritated people. The OJ shirts are protest shirts,” he said.
The unlicensed shirts were originally sold at stalls outside of the courthouse where the trial was taking place. Most bear graphics either exuberantly proclaiming OJ’s innocence — “You’re still my hero!” reads one design; “Don’t squeeze the Juice!” taunts another.
The shirts have less to do with Simpson’s guilt or innocence and more to do with what the trial said about the nation.
“There’s this real misunderstanding now of the ‘90s as a time of peace and prosperity, this Pax Americana,” said James Payne, curator of the Skylab gallery. “But, in fact, this was a time of real racial paranoia and of general social discontent. The trial became an avatar for race relations in America because the Rodney King beating, the LA riots and increased drug sentences – which OSU professor Michelle Alexander calls ‘the new Jim Crow’ – were racially motivated: any conviction of a black person through the U.S. judicial process was looked at with immense suspicion, which I think is totally justifiable.
“I think it’s important that we reevaluate those things that happened in our childhood as things that are still happening.”
The shirts are characterized by their “naive” designs, the relative amateurism of which adds to the strength of their message.
Shawn Khemsurov, a designer at sportswear powerhouse Homage, noted, “today designers are only trying to copy professional stuff. The OJ shirts are done by someone who isn’t trying to imitate anything, just express something.”
“You look at [the shirts] and think, ‘What were these people thinking?’” said Payne. “But for design and visual culture, that’s good. Design languages are produced by certain economic and social backgrounds, and they are just as clearly inscribed in these shirts as in any political essay.”
The Simpson shirts are also unique in demonstrating the way in which people responded to the news.
“People just take to the Internet now,” said Khemsurov. “In the Casey Anthony trial, it would be appalling for someone to make something about it. People just get online and talk sh*t on the CNN boards. That’s the equivalent. That’s their outlet — there’s no doing, there’s no making.”
Relatedly, Hugo discussed the paucity of DIY political shirts after more recent tragedies.
“After 9/11, the ‘Osama in the Crosshairs’ designs were pretty good, but it’s not the same [as the OJ shirts, as not many people would disagree with the anti-Osama message]. Like when they killed bin Laden, the cover of the New York Post said, ‘Rot in Hell.’ That was awesome. That would have been the perfect opportunity to make some real confrontational sh*t.”
“One [item] that got a lot of press was an OJ Simpson wrist watch, with the white Bronco going around the face,” Hugo explained. “I’d buy it if I could.”
While the messages are perhaps odious to those convinced of Simpson’s guilt — at the heart of it, two people were brutally stabbed to death — they nonetheless reflect the bitterness of a nation and the class and race prejudices that infect its legal apparatus. The shirts could just as easily be shown at a history museum as a gallery.
“If anything, I think those sorts of designs should be in the Smithsonian. They are a great evocation of what people are thinking, people who were just part of the general public,” said Payne.