The past inside the present’. This is a sample repeated throughout Music is Math, a track by purveyors of IDM, Boards of Canada. It neatly reflects Ligon’s approach in this exhibition, both in meaning and method. Encounters and Collisions is a Ligon self-portrait of sorts, inserting his work into a mix of heavyweights (Warhol, Kline), photojournalism, photography, Sun Ra, Basquiat etc. It could also be understood as a portrait of America – that fragmented, divisive, nuanced, pluralistic, brutal, exciting social construct. Ligon probes and collapses these hierarchies and social constructs – and in doing so offers the viewer a transformative, disorienting and reconfiguring experience of identity. Here is all of America – black, gay, female, male, white, racist, civil rights, etc. In the opening room, one of the paintings appropriating comedian Richard Pryor’s stand-up proclaims ‘we ain’t killed you motherfuckers’. I’ve seen Pryor’s stand-up before and yet in this painting it’s disconcerting. The lurid colours are unsettlingly cheerful and there’s a duality in presenting such apoplectic words in this palatable way. To quote and de-contextualise one of Ligon’s favourite writers, James Baldwin, ‘All this was carrying me some place I didn’t want to go.’ (Sonny’s Blues).
Ligon’s musicality is experienced throughout the space – through visual motifs he creates ripples and reverberations; the police truncheon in Kelley Walker’s silk-screen triptych Black Star Press (2005) is echoed by the physicality of Cady Noland’s 1989 Pipes in a Basket sculpture –these emblems of brutality and punishment help build up this uncompromising, multi-layered vision of America. In a William Eggleston Alabama photograph from 1969, a portly, white old man, bespectacled and suited, strokes a red US Air Force plane tenderly, as one would a pet. Whether this man is a racist or not, he becomes a convenient linchpin with which to excise white collective guilt. This speaks of photography’s tokenistic, too facile interpretation – something which Ligon’s complex vision wildly discredits.
In order to anchor myself in the exhibition, I am necessarily reductive and pick out ‘samples’. For me, Mythic Being, (1973) by Adrian Piper and Untitled by Ligon act as centrifugal forces through which to understand Ligon’s wider concerns. Piper, a mixed race, female Conceptual artist, in moustache and Afro, enacts an imitation of a black male. Suspending disbelief she embodies an identity that’s not hers, comically playing with society’s hegemonic, ingrained ideas of gender and racial difference. This acts as a precursor to Judith Butler’s gender theory: ‘the transvestite’s gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectations.’ My Benjamin ‘aura’ moment is mediated via Ligon’s Untitled (I lost my voice. I found my voice.’) This work points to the circularity of Ligon’s preoccupations and as I start to lose myself in the incantatory repetition of the words a voice in heavily accented English disrupts my interior epiphanies: ‘I lost my voice. I found my voice. I lost my voice. I found my voice. I lost…’ the voice, belonging to a young Chinese woman, gives way to a series of unsuppressed giggles. Initially, I’m annoyed, but then I understand her performance as another layer of the work and I feel like saying, ‘read that disappearing ‘I’ in a softer way.’ The refrain is deeply affecting (and a welcome pause from Ligon’s cerebral machinations) and as my eye follows the individual letters, they dissolve, becoming fainter, darker, fainter, the negative space around them producing a series of downward, undulating waves, pointing at the cyclical, existential, identity crises we all have as humans.
The news of the summer provides yet another prism through which to consider Ligon’s themes (Rachel Dolezal’s bizarre construction of her identity as a black woman, the Charleston shootings, the Supreme Court equal marriage ruling, the fictional Atticus Finch re-assessed as bigot) as well as Liverpool’s pivotal, historical role in African slavery.
As Paul Celan informs Anselm Kiefer’s (another titan of non-linearity and histories trapped in the present) work, the spectre of Baldwin looms large in Encounters and Collisions, and yet his physical manifestations are disappointing. The cartoonish, colourful Beauford Delaney depiction of Baldwin is a slight, equivocal portrait of a gargantuan mind. So is Ligon’s obfuscation of Baldwin’s words in one of his paintings.
In Don de Lillo’s Cosmopolis, billionaire Eric Packer crassly wishes to purchase an entire chapel of Rothkos which would result in them being closed to the public. We need not covet a collector’s wealth as, in placing these works together, Ligon freely gives us a multiplicity of ideas, which linger on far longer than the initial viewing.
Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions.
30 June – 18 October 2015
Eli Regan is a writer based in Liverpool.