5:05 pm Oct. 26, 2012
“Nov. 6, 2012,” written in neon tubes and overpainted in black, is one of two works in Glenn Ligon’s new show at Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea that’s not been plugged in. Otherwise, the gallery is spectacularly aglow with neon text.
Scheduled to start at 6 p.m., the opening reception doors remained shut when the hour rolled around. A sizeable crowd waited patiently on the sidewalk.
“Hey, why don’t we just go in here?” a woman just passing by the closed gallery said.
“Why? Who’s showing?” her friend asked.
“I don’t know, but obviously it’s someone a lot of people like.” They waited around with the crowd and, when the doors finally opened around 6:15, they filed in.
Ligon is certainly an artist a lot of people like; enough to support a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney last year and attract an exclusive set of collectors (including Barack Obama, who borrowed one of Ligon’s paintings from the Hirshhorn Museum for display the White House.) Rarely shying away from issues of race and identity, Ligon uproots these concepts, mainly through appropriated text. For the retrospective, he hung an oversized bright-white neon sign which read “negro sunshine” in the window of the Whitney Museum’s front vestibule, borrowing the phrase from a novella by Gertrude Stein about a biracial woman.
Literary allusions are common in Ligon’s work. He’s plucked text from the likes of Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Pryor (whose controversial use of the N-word Ligon reintroduced through his text paintings.) The piece Obama borrowed refers to John Howard Griffin’s 1961 memoir, Black Like Me, in which Griffin posed as a black man and chronicled his experience. Reluctant to take full ownership over the appropriated snippets, Ligon’s real art lies not in the phrases themselves but in what happens when they are taken from their original contexts, repeated, lit from within, painted over, effaced; in short, what they mean to those who read them.
Ligon’s stepmother, Charlene, was hovering around “Nov. 6, 2012,” (the piece is titled One Black Day). I asked her why she thought it wasn’t lit up like the others
“I was thinking,” she said, “Oh, Glenn. That means he'll light it November 6th when the right person is in office.”
“Do you know what November 6th is?” a woman nearby wondered aloud.
“It’s election day,” I said. A friend of the woman jumped in.
“So why is the title One Black Day?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer he walked over to Ligon to ask the artist directly. He stood idly for a moment near Ligon, waiting to grab his attention, and then asked.
“It lights up on that one day,” Ligon replied. “But because it's painted black on the front it appears as these other neons appear, in black lettering.” Then he added, cryptically, “Well, it's a pun.”
“I thought it was this significant political statement or something, and I couldn't figure out what,” the questioning man said.
“Well, it depends on who you're voting for,” Ligon said.
“Most of the people here wouldn't assume it's a black day,” the man suggested, getting through at some of the punning.
“Depends on who you're voting for and who wins,” Ligon said evenly. “It's a ‘black day’ either way. You just have to think about it.” Ligon giggled. “It’s just a different black.” Then he assured everyone around that the piece would be lit on that day and only on that day—the outcome of the election notwithstanding.
Ligon has been working on a book project with his friend Anthony Elms, the book publisher and associate curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. For three years and counting they’ve begun compiling vintage book covers, dating mostly from the ‘70s, all of which address some facet of black culture or identity.
“I guess the book is about … how black identity is sold with the graphic-design choices,” Elms said last night, “It’s heavily weighted to the notion of black identity. Other than concentrating on African Americans, [it is about] distinct black history.” They are exploring blackness from a purely American vantage point; how it intervenes with this country’s turbulent history. “The [books] are not necessarily picked for their content.” he continued, saying they mostly have “messy content when it comes to race relations.”
The other unlit work in the show is titled One Live and Die (2006) and reads “BLACKANDDIE BLACKANDLIVE”; its neon tubes are also painted black on the side facing viewers. Unlike most of the works, which are simply neon mounted on white walls, this one is backed by a long white metal box and set very low on the gallery wall, down near the floor. Referencing a Bruce Nauman neon piece titled 100 Live and Die (1984), that work’s blackout seems somewhat more inscrutable.
Glenn’s older brother, Tyrone Ligon was standing with his friend, Gordon Christmas, 53, Pace Gallery’s lead photographer. Despite being only 15 months older than Glenn, Tyrone joked that at the Whitney opening he’d been mistaken for Glenn’s father … twice. Not quite a spitting image, Tyrone certainly looks like his brother—the similarities revealing themselves only after a few minutes of conversation.
“I know who I’m voting for,” Tyrone said to me. “I don’t know how people can still be undecided.” He then launched into a story about when Glenn met President Obama.
“It was Thanksgiving,” he said. “We were at the Red Rooster and Thelma [Golden], director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, was there. And she talked about how Michelle Obama came to the Museum … and so she was saying ‘We gotta get you to meet Obama.’”
“So they went to a fundraiser in January,” Tyrone continued. “The boyfriend of the organizer recognized [Glenn] on line and got him inside, and when the event was over an aide said ‘Would you like to meet the President?’”
We all paused to appreciate the moment.
“And then I said,” Tyrone went on, “You should have looked at your watch and said ‘Eh ... I dunno, maybe 10 minutes and I gotta go.’”
‘Neon’ is up at Luhring Augustine through December 8.
Top left photo by Francie Campbell; all other images courtesy Luhring Augustine.
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