Magazine article Artforum International

"Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions": Tate Liverpool

Magazine article Artforum International

"Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions": Tate Liverpool

Article excerpt

WALKING INTO "Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions" at Tate Liverpool, visitors found themselves poised between Jasper Johns's 1962 lithograph Painting with Two Balls II and a mid-1970s David Hammons body print in which the artist's features are framed within an ace of spades. In tandem with that suggestive pairing, the first gallery contained the Cady Noland sculpture Pipes in a Basket, 1989, which comprises handcuffs and a small American flag alongside a handful of pipes; Kelley Walker's screen-printed painting Black Star Press (Triptych), 2005, based on scanned photographs of civil rights demonstrations that he overpainted with white, milk, and dark chocolate; Hammons's sculpture John Henry, 1990, made of steel railroad track, stone, and human hair; Alighiero Boetti's small embroidered textile Incontri e scontri, 1988, whose text (translated from Italian) supplied the show's title; and an early oil-and-enamel painting on paper by Willem de Kooning, Black Untitled, 1948. This resonant ensemble was rounded out by two of Ligon's own Richard Pryor paintings, Mudbone (Liar), 1993, and Niggers Ain't Scared, 1996. Collectively, the works mapped key moments and issues--artistic, social, and political--in Ligon's formation and ongoing history, from his childhood in the Bronx in the '60s, through his coming-of-age in an era of civil rights struggles, to his education in the Whitney Independent Study Program, and his present-day life in Brooklyn. It also counterpointed several generations of artists, juxtaposing elders, such as Hammons and Johns, who have been significant mentors for him, with contemporaries, notably Noland and Walker, with whom he has close affinities. That almost all of the works in the modestly scaled gallery were made by his fellow citizens was also telling. Though the show was intermittently enriched by incursions from elsewhere, its purview was unmistakably the country of Ligon's birth (a focus underscored in another gallery by Ligon's Untitled, 2006, a monumental neon sign whose letters, painted black, spell AMERICA).

Building on that richly textured opening salvo, the show unfolded through a series of interconnected spaces in which exhibits were clustered thematically or by reference to formal or material concerns (or both). Integral to these groupings were photographs, films, and videos by William Eggleston, Charles Moore, and Agnes Varda, among others. Like many of the objects in the first gallery, these selections evoked watersheds of recent American history, providing a kind of quasi-documentary ballast throughout the exhibition. The generational admixture extended through the show, with classic works by forebears including Philip Guston, Bruce Nauman, Adrian Piper, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Serra, and Andy Warhol installed alongside revered icons by important figures from Ligon's generation (Byron Kim, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Zoe Leonard, Steve McQueen, and Chris Ofili, among others), while a few outliers, such as Sun Ra and Beauford Delaney, leavened this pedigreed corpus. All told, "Encounters and Collisions," billed as Ligon's "first major curatorial project," brought more than forty artists into conversation and comprised some 125 works. A mere dozen, spanning the years 1985 to 2008, were by Ligon himself. Each was contextualized within a finely honed selection of works by other participants that engaged its core concerns, including homophobia, racial stereotyping, masculinity, social justice, artistic legacy, and the problems and possibilities of expressive abstraction. The show's organizers, Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson (who initiated the show when he was director of Nottingham Contemporary) and Francesco Manacorda (artistic director at Tate Liverpool, to which it traveled) describe the exhibition in the accompanying catalogue as "a kind of retrospective, but one that takes the paradoxical form of a group exhibition--a group exhibition that traces Ligon's relationships with others"--and as "the realization of the imaginary museum [Ligon's] practice evokes. …

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