Saturday, June 4, 2011

AMERICA: Glenn Ligon at the Whitney

It was on a straight up WHIM that I ventured into the heavily air-conditioned Whitney museum this week. I'm SO glad I did, because the Glenn Ligon show that I saw was amazing, and is only up until tomorrow. So, writing about it for promotional reasons is now pretty much null and void, but I shall write about it for the simple reason that I can't NOT share this experience.

The show is called AMERICA, and greets you in neon before you're even across the cement moat. Its my personal preference to see a show like this one (first of all, huge, and spanning over the artists past 30 years of work) knowing little or nothing about the artist, if possible. Contrary to this method, upon seeing the work, I couldn't help but question myself deeply; why aren't I familiar with this artist? How did this guy not come up in my entire college education? Even in Jack Whitten's class ?! (An artist and professor at SVA who will not let anyone he's speaking to go five minutes without bringing to attention the fact that he is a black man, from the south. Which, trust me, is quite apparent, if you know Jack).

In fact, I'm writing all of this now without looking up any thing on Ligon. I don't know where he's from, his age, or his education. I have seen photos of him, so I know he IS of African American nationality (so none of this work is done ironically, thank god) and he wears glasses. That's pretty much it. All I know about Glenn Ligon, besides what I have seen at the show. I will promptly research this brilliant artist once this post is over. But in a vague attempt to be totally non-bias, I will postpone educating myself prior to this.

Okay, okay! I'm rambling! SO! This was like a crash course in America's Civil Rights Movement and African American History, through as many art forms as you can imagine. Painting, silk screen, mixed media, sculpture, photography, text, literally everything you can think of, this show covers all bases. All of the work centers strongly around race. The wall sized silk screens on canvas are images of the Million Man March, hanging opposite three nearly identical editions of self portraits, the back of the artist's shaved head. Occupying another room are enormous works on canvas, of repetitive text.

It brings to mind typewriters and frustration; relentlessly pounding over and over again on the keys, the same keys, the ink getting darker the harder you hit them. Some work I was not able to get photos of, also text, were excerps right out of dream interpretation books. Singular lines about seeing such omens as sailors, black men, your sweet heart, in your dreams. I sleep with a dream dictionary next to my bed, so it was kinda sentimental.

As serious as this work can seem right off the bat, there really was a lot of humor expressed through it. One room of square silkscreen prints, in neon colors (perhaps hinting that yes, these are the fun ones) were jokes right from the mouth of the late, great, Richard Pryor.

I found one particular joke very funny, about the two well endowed gentlemen relieving themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge, and commenting on the temperature and depth of the water. Think about it. Hilarious.

Speaking of lowering trousers, there are a large number of black and white photos in the style of Robert Mapplethorpe. This is an artist I am familiar with. Look up 'erotic photo' in the dictionary and you'll find an archive of his prints. Few photographers have done things so sexual, so sexy, with as much class and elegance as Mapplethorpe. Just thinking about these prints makes me picture all the church-goer ladies in my neighborhood and their reactions. Stunned and repulsed at first, but then so clearly into it, the way a bachelorette reluctantly accepts a lap dance, and then puts dollar bills into a grown man's G-string. With her teeth.

You can kind of tell that these are racy photographs, even from this distance. All beautiful in their own way, I like the ones of butts. I can't put my finger on it, but something about the cheer round-ness and the eclipsing shadows that place upon such a surface, is nothing short of breathtaking. They are all winners. So wonderfully done. I wonder what Mapplethorpe would have thought of this deliberate 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' piece. I believe justice was done on the part of Glenn Ligon, on this one.

Its satirical the way Ligon places himself in dated, and hence-by , racist, settings, such as the Runaway lithographs. Clearly in the context of describing a wanted outlaw slave in stereotypical descriptions, Ligon inserts humaneness and sincerity, and character traits worlds deeper than 'black hair, brown eyes'.

I am fully aware of how disjointed and scattered this review is. There is simply too much to cover, I have the urge to just blurt everything out all at once, like am annoying little kid who just got done seeing their first circus, and is sitting in the backseat of the car, relaying everything that happened to their parents, who were there, and saw everything as it happened.

This is the room in which the runaways series was on display. These boxes have such a great influence behind them, I'm going to tell you now. Each of these 3x2 crates has music emanating from them. The one to the far right was Bob Marley. You couldn't hear it unless you got right up next to it, which was kind of funny to see other people do, sticking their heads out right near these inanimate wood pieces, and smiling once they got close enough. This piece is about a famous man, named Henry 'Box' Brown.

In 1849, Henry, born a slave, mailed himself in a 3x2 crate to abolitionists, in Philadelphia. To freedom. He MAILED himself! Then went on to become an abolitionist himself, helping many others who sought freedom themselves. Is that not the best thing you've ever heard regarding slavery (besides the fact that it was finally stopped for good)?

These are more photos (silkscreened onto canvas) of The Million Man March, with text on top, in coal dust. Thats right, coal dust. Not awesome glitter, not my MAC shimmery eye shadow. Ground up BBQ material. Gorgeous. The texture was SO cool, and the hint of sheen was really effective on top of the matte images.

This is a detail of how beautiful coal dust is.
Can I have a handbag made out of this stuff? Some shoes?
Nail polish! Yes, Please!

Speaking of cosmetology, probably one of the better known pieces at this show (which I am assuming because of the Google image search results) is this one of a dolled up Malcolm X.

The long and short of the text, provided by the Whitney accompanying these pieces, was this: Ligon was asked to do a project for/involving a community. The artist chose to do a children's workshop, in which he provided young kids with ethnic coloring books from the 70s, featuring prominent African American members of society. The children in the workshop came from diverse backgrounds and were completely unaware of the figures they took their Crayola colors to. With no knowledge of Isaac Hayes or Malcolm X, the way the books were colored in was completely non-bias. Yes, some figures and faces were indeed filled in with sienna, but there was more than one orange afro, and Frederick Douglass even received a blonde beard with blue eyes. The image of Malcolm X seen above could be viewed as a stab to emasculate a powerful leader, when really, it was most likely a little girl with a sense of avant-garde make up beyond her years. That is why Ligon chose to copy the pages onto canvas and silkscreen the very works of these children.

This is a remarkable show, and quite an eye-opener. As a full fledged New Yorker, growing up in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, living in Spanish Harlem, I was surprised to be as deeply moved as I was by such a subject as this show. It's a shame it isn't up longer... or that I did not see it sooner. Thank you for the introduction, Glenn Ligon, it was lovely meeting you through this retrospective show of yours. I look forward to learning, and seeing, more.

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