It’s not often you get to see, within the same time frame, two exhibitions that so successfully engage your attention as someone who derives considerable pleasure from visual art, while simultaneously engaging in a serious and challenging way with the social and political issues of the world beyond the gallery walls. One such, Marlene Dumas’ Image as Burden has just closed at Tate Modern, and I’ve written about it here … ; the other, Glenn Ligon’s Encounters and Collisions, is at Nottingham Contemporary until the 14th June, after which it transfers to Tate Liverpool from 30th June till the 18th October.
Encounters and Collisions is a great show. Great in its variety, its ambition, in the individual works on display. There’s a Pollock, for instance, a rather magnificent Franz Kline, some Warhol, a small de Kooning, photographs by Eggleston and Bruce Davidson; there are pieces by artists you might not have come across before – Beauford Delaney, for instance, or Martin Wong – that bring you up short (the Wong it’s hard not to go back to again and again) thinking why have I not come across this person’s work before. [“My bad,” as my daughter might say.]
But what makes it a great show, as I say, is its ambition, an ambition which is Ligon’s own. Rather than predominantly featuring his own work, he has chosen to embed it within a selection of works by artists who have influenced him at various stages of his development and from which (whom?) his own artistic practice – and its concerns with race, gender and sexuality – has sprung.
Take the first room, which starts with one of Ligon’s own pieces and one of his best known, a portrait of Malcolm X, in which all colour has been drained from the face, save for the lipstick and the spots of rouge on his cheeks. A Malcolm X who has been feminised and stripped of his most defining feature, his blackness. [The idea came to him, Ligon has said, from working with pre-school children from different backgrounds, using colouring books featuring famous African American figures the children were too young to recognise.] And is the Malcolm X we see here emasculated or assimilated? Without his blackness, what remains? Has he, with time, become integrated beyond the point of threat, of danger? Beyond colour? Is such a thing – in the USA especially – in any meaningful sense possible? As Ligon pointed out, Malcolm X used to be one of the most feared men in America and now you can go into a post office and buy a stamp with his head on it.
Facing this piece, on the opposite wall, hang two of Warhol’s brightly coloured portraits of another revolutionary figure, Chairman Mao, raised to the status of celebrity and famous for his image rather than his radical ideas. Further down the same wall are two paintings by Beauford Delaney, one a full length portrait of James Baldwin against an almost Fauvist background – one gay black man in Paris painting another gay black man in Paris – the other a predominantly yellow, slithering abstract; the pair of them oscillating between figuration and abstraction in a manner that Ligon sees as similar to the tension between text and abstraction in his own work.
Turn about and you are face to face with Ligon’s Stranger #23, a large rectangle, predominantly black but not overwhelmingly so; look a little longer and you see there are lines of text running left to right all the way down across and showing through, once your eyes have acclimatised, in pale shapes that still resist being read, letters that are covered in coal dust, dust through which at intervals – as you move, as your eyes move, as the canvas seems to move – sparkle with brilliant microscopic notes that shine from the dust. What is this? A refusal to be silent? Words that can’t be heard? The stubborn persistence of light in the darkness? The denial, through black, of black as a solid, immovable and unchanging colour: the denial of black itself?
These are themes that can be traced through the exhibition, room to room, work to work: the importance and persistence of language; the nature of black.
Ligon talks about the relevance, early on in his development as an artist, of the black on white paintings of Franz Kline, and there one is – Meryon – prominent on the far wall of the first gallery, the first thing, the first image you see as you enter: a black, not quite abstract construction, heavy and unmoving against its white background, insistent upon its solidity, its colour. Its blackness. As is often the case with Kline, the imagery makes me think of bridges, Brooklyn Bridge above all, but when we step back into the gallery for the second time, having taken in so much else on display, my friend, Irving, says what it brings to his mind is no longer a bridge but a gallows.
In another, smaller, gallery, one of Jackson Pollock’s mostly black paintings, Yellow Islands, (yellow, like the glitter amidst the coal dust, shining through) is displayed close to one of Robert Morris’ untitled felt works, which hangs off the wall, like a a Kline or a Pollock brought to life, like one of Kline’s solid images of black given fluidity and movement and a kind of stubborn grace.
Go from here to Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting No 5, a square of seemingly solid black, which, when you step away from it, is less than solid through and through, which, in part and in certain light shines blue. Or to Jennie C. Jones trio of sculptures, Shhh #12, #14 and #15, made from professional noise cancelling cable and, like Morris’ felt, hanging down from the walls, thin and black and partly coiled like whips – instruments of control used to deny protest, language, speech.
You see how it works; I don’t need to go on. Even though I’ve only scratched the surface. Do go to the show if you can, if not in Nottingham, then Liverpool. Or both.
For much of my (partial) understanding of how the exhibition works, I am grateful to Mark Rawlinson, Head of the Department of History of Art at the University of Nottingham, whose Gallery Talk I was fortunate enough to attend.
And you can find Glenn Ligon’s recent evening session at Nottingham Contemporary, The Anxiety of Influence, in which he talks about the exhibition and his work, here …