Glenn Ligon: AMERICA

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The dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes emotions suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between the different cultures was honest feeling, pity, or pragmatism.

[Art: Review]

Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, the art exhibit now at the renowned Whitney Museum, subjectively stirred combative points of being Black in America, as well as those memories I had at family reunions.

Talks of living under the Jim Crow Law dominated conversations. Most of my family is from the South and moved to get away. I remember Glenn at a few of those reunions. We’re cousins. I haven’t seen him in years, but I did go to his show at the Whitney.

His art explores American history, literature, and society through modern paintings and conceptual art. Nearly 100 of his pieces adorned the halls of the museum: paintings, prints, photography, drawings, sculptures, and neon signs.

Words stenciled on wooden doors or door shaped canvasses: James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Pryor, Jean Genet, Roger Mapplethorpe, and others, aligned symmetrically.

In each painting, single sentence is repeated over and over, and from top to bottom, the sentence becomes smudgy and less legible.

His tone displayed comedy, anger, and bemusement - as his work explores aesthetic questions related to society, linguistics, racial and gender politics and sexuality. I can see where his inspiration lies within his art--growing up in a family where most of the members lived under Jim Crow in the South, where they weren’t allowed to share water fountains, movie houses, public restrooms, ballparks, phone booths, and other services with whites.

There is no trickier subject for an artist whose roots materialized under Jim Crow to reveal affection with a white one with the history of segregation as a demarcation. The dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes emotions suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between the different cultures was honest feeling, pity, or pragmatism. But Glenn Ligon’s art transcends that
point.

He was born in the Bronx and lived in a housing project. He won a scholarship to Walden, a Manhattan progressive, arts-focused, and predominantly white school. He graduated and went to study art at the Rhode Island School of Design. And then he transferred to Wesleyan University, where he received his bachelor degree. Afterward, he enrolled in Whitney Museum Independent Study program.

The rest is history.

His work exudes his experiences as an African-American and as a gay man--one who used his art as a metaphor for the obvious. And despite my combative questions about his work, thoughts of my family reunions surfaced – and I felt at home, at ease, and with hope.


"Speaking Truth To Empower."


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