In December of last year, I happened upon an exhibit of Glenn Ligon’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (a show that originated at the Whitney Museum). I was struck by Ligon’s direct takes on race, politics, and sex in American history through striking visual juxtapositions of text and image. As a humor scholar, I was especially struck by a series of five works in which material from Richard Pryor was screen printed in bright ink onto bright backgrounds, making the words hard, if not impossible to read.
Glenn Ligon, Just Us #1, 2004 (photo by T. Wuster)
As the text accompanying the piece states, the uncomfortable optical effect “delivers an optical punch commensurate with Pryor’s ‘colorful’ language.” (See below for full text) Indeed, some of the paintings are so difficult to process, due to the clash between colors, so as to be unreadable. Only after photographing the above picture was I able to decipher the text. I was greatly struck by the re-presentation of Pryor’s works into a visual medium that both reflects and comments upon the discomfort that can be caused by the social critique of his comedy.
While not all of Ligon’s pieces deal as directly with subjects that can fall under the cover of “humor,” his work contains connections between language, image, and society that mirror the impact of humor that shocks us into seeing the world and speaking the word in new ways.
Glenn Ligon’s “America” is showing at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth until June 3.
See below for one further piece.
From the Whitney Museum webpage:
Glenn Ligon: AMERICA is the first comprehensive mid-career retrospective devoted to this pioneering New York–based artist. Throughout his career, Ligon (b. 1960) has pursued an incisive exploration of American history, literature, and society across a body of work that builds critically on the legacies of modern painting and more recent conceptual art. He is best known for his landmark series of text-based paintings, made since the late 1980s, which draw on the writings and speech of diverse figures including Jean Genet, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesse Jackson, and Richard Pryor. Ligon’s subject matter ranges widely from the Million Man March and the aftermath of slavery to 1970s coloring books and the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe—all treated within artworks that are both politically provocative and beautiful to behold.
Museum label from LACMA show.
From the “Runaways” series, which recasts Lignon as an escaped slave and his autobiography as a series of title pages from slave narratives. While not humor per se, the series works on a principle of incongruity and juxtaposition that is humorous in effect.
(c) 2012, Tracy Wuster
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