Glenn Ligon is Barack Obama’s favorite artist. His powerful work hangs in museums around the world like MoMA, Guggenheim, Tate Modern etc. There is however one artwork of his you haven’t been able to see since 2009: his Black Like Me No 2. Until now: the painting is being exhibited at Nottingham Contemporary starting today before moving to the Tate Liverpool, 30 June-18 October!
The painting from 1992 reproduces a text by a white journalist posing as a black man in the deep south. To see this you would have to be very good friends with Barack Obama and take a trip to the White House. Ligon’s art, with its gloomy neon signs and dense, stencilled canvases, questions black representation, the complex subject of race and homosexuality, and above all the promise and unobtainable reality of the America dream.
Rather than mount a traditional retrospective, Ligon’s new show Encounters and Collisions shows the a history of bold, unusual postwar art, with works by more than 40 artists who have influenced him. He’s included older painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, icons of black contemporary art like David Hammons, as well as under-appreciated figures like Beauford Delaney. There are also artists who tackle LGBT issues, including Félix González-Torres and Zoe Leonard, and seven works of Ligon’s own, including a colouring-book picture of Malcolm X in which the black activist has been left with white skin.
Ligon’s show opens at a critical time for civil rights in America. While Obama has been in office, gays and lesbians have made extraordinary advances (excluding the recent freedom bill passed in Indiana), and yet the US has witnessed a spike in police brutality against African-Americans. The Ferguson story in Missouri, set off weeks of protests after the killing of teenager Michael Brown. Several recent deaths have emphasized both the persistence of violence and the insufficiency of images and documentation to bring perpetrators to justice. In New York last summer, Eric Garner died after being placed in a banned chokehold by a police officer.
“You can be visible and invisible at the same time, ” Ligon concludes in his interview with Jason Farago. “Even with a million cameras, there’s no such thing for certain groups of people, as evidence. It’s a hopeful sign that a black presidency has brought these issues to the fore. But at the same time as we go forward, we go back. Things like Ferguson and Eric Garner show us there’s an unequal distribution of forward momentum in America. In the show in Nottingham, when people look at the America neon with no light shining from it, they’ll see it.”