Emma Geliot's picture


 Andy Keate Glenn Ligon - Untitled, 2004 (including video installation by Jasper Johns, right corner).Photo: Andy Keate

Glenn Ligon brings a taste of the USA to Nottingham Contemporary and Francesca Donovan likes his style in an exhibition that balances big names, with no pushing and shoving, to good effect, .

America! Ligon s Untitled and unlit neon artwork (2004) screams at passers by through the glass facade of Nottingham Contemporary. Preceded by an installation artwork - hundreds of wrapped sweeties adorning the gallery floor, in patriotic red, white and blue - the combination leaves little doubt as to where Ligon s new exhibition intends to transport us. The Land of the Free - us Brits are fascinated by all things Stateside, aren t we? After all, the contemporary artistic offerings from our supersized cousins across the pond have always been a thing to behold in their glamour, scale and bravery.

Curated by the renowned artist, Glenn Ligon, Encounters and Collisions positions Glen and his art among his peers. Ligon has curated his ideal museum for our delectation. He said of the show,My aim is to create a space that positions my work as a series of dialogues with other artists and histories.

A simple aim, a little self-indulgent perhaps. But then again, Ligon does have the credentials to justify his foray into self-curation. It is also a worthwhile mission to imagine artists working, not in solitude, but in a real context: A time, a place, an era, a cultural revolution.

You do get a sense of this in Encounters and Collisions. We are shown, explicitly, what was and is culturally important and worth artistic commentary. The dialogue here is centred on racial, sexual and gender relations in the US; Ligon s depiction of Malcolm X #1 (2003) is emblazoned across the accompanying exhibition literature.

Glenn Ligon - Malcolm X #1 (Small Version #2) 2003 Photo courtesy the artst and Nottingham Contemporary Glenn Ligon - Malcolm X #1 (Small Version #2) 2003 Photo courtesy the artst and Nottingham Contemporary

These are popular subjects in contemporary exhibitions and they have been done countless times. So, of course, we look for something unusual, a different perspective, something fresh and enlightening. This takes thoughtful and precise curation. Ligon, in this sense, has pulled it off.

To see such a great number of contemporaneous artists, working towards similar subjects, in lieu of the same cultural transitions and bigotries is special. Ligon s fluid curation of this exhibition, a possible minefield of disjointed names, is seamless.

Incidentally, this exhibition does seem to be a little artist, rather than artwork-focussed, although some might say these entities are one and the same. It is quite unavoidable to discuss an artwork without encountering a biographical context. Furthermore, the nature of Encounters and Collisions, together with the tangible dialogue between peers and their works, serves up a veritable feast of artists. Amazingly, the mass of voices in such a small space does not distract from the overriding subject matter.

However, Warhol s artworks, two to be precise, feel a little out of place in this context. Yes, he is illustrative of The American Dream and spent his career reflecting on popular contemporary culture. But these two prints feel unannounced and unanchored, dropped into a corner by a Jasper John s video installation. Here, perhaps, to bolster the quota of big name artists, rather than because they add to the exhibition philosophies. Perhaps Ligon simply wanted Warhol s presence and influence felt in the space.

On the other hand, the works by William L Pope and Alighiero Boetti are so thoughtfully treated and so obviously comfortable in the space and dialogue, I can forgive Ligon his worship at the altar of Warhol.

Boetti s tapestries are a refreshing splash of colour, texture and physical manifestation of pure craftsmanship. One, Incontri e Scontri (1988) gives the exhibition its title. The other, a multi-coloured world map floating in a sea of hot pink, goes some way to putting America in perspective. American culture, like the artists operating within it, does not stand alone. It too, despite its perceived power and omnipresence, is in discourse with global cultures, borrowing from here and there, adopting certain aspects and nurturing them as their own.

Alghiero Boetti - Incontri e Scontri 1988 Photo courtesy the artist and Art Actuel Alghiero Boetti - Incontri e Scontri 1988 Photo courtesy the artist and Art Actuel

Pope s series of four pastel-coloured pencil works may get overlooked, aesthetically, until one gets metaphorically kicked in the teeth by their messages.

White people are angels on fire , states one.

Black people are the window and the breaking of the window , claims another.

Yellow people are black people with tragic genitalia , mocks the third.

You might imagine the works by the incredibly successful artists (read Serra, Twombly, Pollock, de Kooning) would fight with each other, jibing, prodding, biting at each other s heels for space and recognition and the limelight. In fact, the artworks are so cleverly placed, neat and subtle in their positions, the dialogue between them is smooth and soft and quietly intense. It is certainly Ligon s art that shouts the loudest.

Words play a key part in Encounters and Collisions. Ligon is a longstanding admirer of literature and he often recycles words, poignantly reverting and resetting their meaning. When Black Wasn t Beautiful #2 (2004), and two other similar Ligon works, quote the controversial African-American comedian, Richard Pryor. The statements all feed into this post-war counter-culture and the struggles of the aftermath of America s 1980s Black Power era, whether they be concerning gender, race or sexuality.

I remember when black wasn t beautiful. Black men come through the neighbourhood saying, 'black is beautiful! Africa is your home! Be proud to be black!' My parents go that nigger crazy

The artworks in Encounters and Collisions not only speak to each other, they speak to us too. The words, accompanied by their aesthetic counterparts, engage us on a level that isn t just visual. The words entice us in. Bruce Nauman s neon work jokes with us:Run from Fear/Fun from Rear , and then cajoles us into private interpretation. That is what helps make this exhibition initially accessible but also, inherently challenging.


 Andy Keate Bruce Nauman - Run from Feae, Run from Rear (1972) and William Pope - Skin Set Drawing series (2000-2009). Photo: Andy Keate

Perhaps that explains the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Nottingham Contemporary s new spring exhibition, from all corners of the art world. Or perhaps it stems from the pure excitement of having the artistic heavyweights on display in Nottingham a city I was astonished to overhear being referred to as a 'cultural black hole'. Twombly, Serra, de Kooning, Pollock, Warhol! These are not names frequently seen crossing the Great British North/South divide, unless of course, you count Newcastle s Baltic Centre and Tate Liverpool. This is art in the so-called provincial cities of the UK, but supersized. And for that basic and unintelligent reason alone, it is well worth a visit.

The exhibition continues at Nottingham Contemporary until 14 June 2015 www.nottinghamcontemporary.org