Glenn Ligon baffles me—the more I look at his work, the less I understand, and because it’s so layered, I learn something new with every attempt I make to decode a piece. It’s a challenge I gladly accept. In the Broad’s latest group show called “A Journey That Wasn’t” Ligon explores the fluidity of time, race, and identity in two selected works that place current social issues within a historical context. His text-based, conceptual style utilizes multiple techniques, whether it’s neon signage, coal dust or oilstick stencils. Despite the medium, one thing is consistent; Glenn Ligon defies you to simply take his work for face value; it’s nearly impossible to do so.
Ligon challenges one of my fundamental beliefs about looking at art. When I talk to people who tell me that they struggle with or can’t relate to contemporary art, I suggest that they resist the need to “understand” everything they see. If a piece doesn’t resonate, you quickly move on.
While I still believe this on a visceral level, this kind of visual thin-slicing can be problematic. Ligon’s work relies on the viewer’s ability to extract and connect the messages contained within it, and in his case it’s worth taking an extra beat to examine your reactions his work.
“A Journey That Wasn’t” is about time–how we spend it, how it passes, and how it changes us. It’s also a show that forces you to slow down.
The theme of the group show explores the passage of time, as represented through conceptual photography, time-elapsed video, painting, and sculpture that offer unique meditations on aging, maturity, and perception.
Each of the 50 works in “A Journey That Wasn’t” expresses a unique rendering of time, capturing development, decline, or decay of the body or society. Ragnar Kjartanson’s hauntingly harmonious ensemble of musicians filmed in the Visitors, is presented alongside German architectural photography and Elliot Hundley’s fantastical worlds created from his intricate and textured collage work.
The show’s heavy focus on photography borders on melancholic, but it also provides the perfect backdrop for a bright neon sign that shines intently, breaking up the solemnity in the galleries. It radiates its otherness among the remaining works in the show.
The two words basking in the golden light somehow made me simultaneously smile and wince. Neon signs are usually direct, they rely on immediacy to capture your attention. This one left me asking questions, namely, “what exactly is Negro Sunshine?”
Glen Ligon’s Warm Broad Glow II could be viewed as a bold euphemism for black joy–at least that was my initial reaction to it, but after wrestling with the dated parlance, the work suggests something different.
The title of Ligon’s sign, “Warm Broad Glow” comes from Gertrude Stein’s “Three Lives”, a book that follows the paths of three women in the early 1900s. The second section of the three-part book centers on a character named Melanctha, a bi-racial black woman who navigates the complexities of her identity and sexuality in her search for love and companionship.
As Stein describes a character in the book, Ligon’s title and the author’s text harmonize with a racially charged tenor.
“Rose laughed when she was happy, but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine.”
Stein repeats the idiomatic phrase “negro sunshine” throughout the story as if it was a stable in our vocabulary. Her deliberate use of exaggerated repetition and caricature is a disorienting literary device that harkens back to harmful descriptions of blackness that prevailed among defenders of slavery in the years preceding the civil war.
With the goal of minimizing the inhumanity of slavery, proponents of the institution would consciously tether blackness to servility, laziness, and joviality in an attempt repackage slavery as patronage over bondage. In an article in the Atlantic, Micki McElya describes some of the roots of this trope.
“In the decades before the Civil War, southern slave owners responded to abolitionists and to published accounts of the horrors of slavery by formerly enslaved men and women with stories of black fidelity and love that described joyful servitude, childlike dependence, and refusals of offered freedom.” (Micki McElya, The Faithful Slave, The Atlantic, May 31, 2017)
In the post-Civil War south, particularly during Jim Crow, these descriptions stuck and became transformed into the common trope of the happy negro. Vestiges of this toxicity persist today.
“With the legal end of U.S. slavery, the faithful-slave narrative grew into a national one, trafficking in nostalgia for an imagined past of benevolent race relations and honorable white supremacy.” (McElya)
Stein continues to attach “negro sunshine” to other characters in Melanthca’s story, as if it were some kind of barometer of acceptable, understandable blackness. Ligon’s sign visually challenges the disquieting way in which these conditional forms of blackness predicate our visibility and acceptance in society. In this case, our visibility requires a veneer of bright sunshine. By comparison, forms of protest and discord are demonized. We see this in the way black mourning, resistance and dissent are routinely challenged today.
In another installation in the show, Ligon offers a more introspective look at his life and society in Narratives, a nine piece work that consists of renderings of slave narratives told from the autobiographical point of view of the artist.
The etchings mimic the textual and graphic style of books written by abolitionists that documented a slave’s journey to freedom. The first page of these volumes often contain abstracts or brief summaries of the book’s content, and Ligon used this typographic style to describe the periods of otherness that he faced throughout his life as a black gay man, reflecting on his education, navigating the art world, interracial relationships and his experiences traveling overseas.
His use of text here is multifaceted; the summaries contain titles that allude to works by James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and bell hooks, who all expand on the social themes Ligon introduces autobiographically.
The interplay between these personal vignettes and larger social issues is another cornerstone of Ligon’s practice; his work toggles between the past and the present taking an unflinching view of himself while simultaneously critiquing the external, societal forces that shape him.
It’s art that can be digested from various perspectives, if one allows the time needed to examine the multifaceted stories that Ligon layers into his work. They aren’t immediately apparent and are easily overlooked (particularly in this context which is vastly different from the narratives conveyed in a solo show), but they are important reminders for us to look beyond ourselves to connect our experiences to the larger world.
My advice to those who struggle with interpreting art will remain the same, but with an addendum: The next time you catch yourself quickly moving on from a work of art that doesn’t immediately speak to you, take a moment to examine that feeling, the work may reveal more to you than you think.