By Tod Roulette
In deciphering the well deserved review of the artist, Glenn Ligon at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I have to start at the end of the show. In this final room three large neon signs simply spell ‘America’. One is shiny white and the ‘E’ is turned backward and the rest of the country’s name reads reverse. On the opposite wall ‘America’ reads correctly from left to right in masked black neon.
The affect is America in black is correct, yet on the opposite side America in white neon is backwards. A bench sits in the middle of the room. As I sat facing America in black, I was aware that looming behind was white America. Turning to my left, the last America sign in the gallery has black neon letters and the white glow comes from behind the letters. Black in the foreground white in the background. Ligon’s conceptual and formalist experiment with the word America is not as inflammatory as the 1990 hip hop album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted by rapper Ice Cube’s but to a thinking person its just as provocative.
Born in 1960, Ligon is the face and possesses a brain of the post Civil Rights era artist in the gallery system today. Instead of being concerned with only the ‘art for arts sake’ , visual or academic exercises Ligon continues to assert his identity, our identity and history of African Americans and to a lesser degree sexuality as a gay man in his work. Artists such as Adrian Piper, David Hammons and Howardena Pindell born a generation before insisted that their work use the style of new art forms while maintaining their blackness. The social landscape of Black Power and near black out of the gallery and museum system demanded it they reasoned.
Looking at the exhibit it’s clear that Ligon wants to continue the discussion despite the visually slick production of the work. But why? It’s 2011 and the art world is a much more welcoming almost embracing place. Why would an Ivy League educated artist want his work and art self to be read as simply ‘black artist’ or ‘gay artist’?
The America signs aren’t groundbreaking. Neither are they simply an art world insider joke because they are neon fabrications of sleek vacuousness. Ligon is referencing art history’s post-Pop trend from the ’70′s and 80′s. Haim Steinbach did it, Bruce Nauman did it. Steinbach showed the banality of excesses with gleaming shelves of polished items and Nauman did it with bright signs shining half truths about the nature of the artist and giving visual vocabulary pundit play. But, Ligon work an another vantage point, his work hopefully will be viewed twice and thrice for its relation to Ligon’s choice of positioning his multiple identities and allegiances.
In the third gallery room of this show if you can hear above the crowded room you’ll hear a funk-rap beat of KRS-One, in the small room littered with three large wood boxes in the middle of the room. The cargo boxes are a reference to crate-reference to Henry Box Brown, a enslaved man who took desperate measures into hand and shipped himself with the aid of friends from Virginia to Philadelphia. The box in which he was mailed was received 26 hours later by a member of the Vigilance Committee.
From one crate a low voice mumbles. It is a tape of Ligon reading almost inaudibly about Box from one crate, Billie Holiday’s voice floats from another and Bob Marley rom the third. The range of voices gives the room a diaspora flavor. Joseph Beuys, the German artist of the 1960′s was known for using relics On the walls is “Runaways”, 1993 an exercise where friends describe the artist-each varying in its emphasis and either minimizing or distinctly pointing out the tonal quality of his blackness. Think historical social writing and autobiograpicals, Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas.
But, is this just smart academic exercising or deeper? Consider the blend visual balance along with the content. Paintings with crass Richard Pryor jokes about the big black penis are on canvas in alluring colors much like the artist Richard Prince’s works from the ’70′s and 80′s which were crass sexist jokes about screwing women and their body parts. In my mind they are successful because they lure us to consider conversations about gayness, blackness and America to be avoided. The largest room is Ligon’s taking quotes from writers and thinkers on blackness, the body and sexuality and framing them to run along the classic, enticing and sometimes inciting images of black men shot by late white photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Titled “Notes on the Margin’s of the Black Book”. First shown at the 1993 Biennial it shows us that Ligon walks the plank of huge sea of art history, public comment, the shark ridden fine art gallery system and museum world, race baiting and gay identity politics. And it is just his mid-career show.
Exhibition Closes: June 5th, 2011
Glenn Ligon: AMERICA is organized by Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf. The exhibition travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the fall of 2011 and to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in early 2012.
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Tod Roulette is a Harlem based private art dealer and published writer whose work has appeared in Avon Books anthology, Fighting Words and numerous articles in ARude, Men’s Style, Paper, Out magazine, Harlem World Magazine and others. His Masters thesis is being rewritten as a book and examines four generations of female members of his MidWest family 1795-1908, “Rowing, Not Drifting-Bryant Women in Kansas, 1795-1908: The Expansion of the West and the Participation by Women of Color”
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