One of the first pieces to catch my eye in Glenn Ligon’s Encounters and Collisions exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary is a neon sign which simply reads, ‘America’. Reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s poem of the same name, this untitled piece seems to be emblematic of this intensely personal exhibition in which Ligon brings together the post-War artists who influenced him, alongside his own work.
Encounters and Collisions explores the many narratives of American discourse, touching on themes of race, identity, sexuality, politics, language, history and aesthetics. For Ligon, who was born in the Bronx in 1960, the Civil Rights movement formed a backdrop to his early years. Here, we see journalistic pieces of the time, including Kelley Walker’s 2005 piece Triptych, which re-appropriates a photograph of a black man being savagely attacked by a police dog as well as pictures of the Birmingham Race Riots and Black Panthers. These sit alongside pieces which examine how these experiences were internalised. Ligon’s 2005 painting, When Black Wasn’t Bceautiful, a quote from comedian Richard Pryor, plays on the idea that our notions of beauty are bound up with a society’s dominant narrative. Meanwhile, Giovanni Anselmo’s interactive exhibit Invisible, where the word ‘visible’ appears on a projector, highlights the ephemeral nature of language and identity.
Sexuality, and the subversion of established norms, is also significant as shown in Ligon’s colouring book picture of Malcolm X, who is rendered feminine in a Warhol-esque way with bright lipstick and eye shadow. Another is a silent and hypnotic film by Steve McQueen called Bear in which two naked men square up to each other in a display of violence and eroticism. The close-up camera work is disarming as it follows the contours of the men’s bodies and disrupts our perspective; McQueen has said he did not want the viewer to be a passive observer but rather to be hyper-sensitive to their own part in the action.
Elsewhere, Ligon pays tribute to the artists who shaped his outlook. The abstract expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, are represented here and the immediacy of their paintings indicate a radical departure from the social realism prevalent in the US at this time. Looking at pieces such as Pollock’s Yellow Islands and de Kooning’s Valentine, it is easy to see why they proved so influential for Ligon: developed in New York, this movement saw artists peering deep into the human consciousness, by-passing rational thoughts, as they explored abstract human desires and experiences.
Encounters and Collisions is on at Nottingham Contemporary until 14th June. It will then move to Tate Liverpool where it will run from 30th June to 18th October.