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Glenn Close-Up

Things get personal at the Contemporary Arts Museum

Two boats, one blue and one orange, rest on the floor. From a video screen, we hear artist Glenn Ligon telling his therapist about making a papier-mâché boat in school and painting it blue and orange. When his teacher asked him why he didn't paint it with prettier colors, he painted the boat black. The choice was part rebellion and part affirmation for the young African-American kid. Looking at his work as an adult, you see similar impulses.

The therapy video and the boat sculptures are part of the exhibition "Glenn Ligon: Some Changes" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, which presents a survey of the artist's work and the evolution of his creative process. To his credit, Ligon makes work that can't be summed up neatly. As you move through the exhibition, the one constant is an autobiographical impulse. It starts out faint and grows progressively stronger as the artist matures and seemingly becomes more comfortable with himself. The videotaped therapy session is the culmination of his autobiographical exploration.

Many of Ligon's early works were text-based. In 1988, he created a painting of the famous civil rights sign "I AM A MAN" that was used during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers' strike. (Martin Luther King was assassinated when he went to support it.) Like the original sign, Ligon's text is set out in stark black letters against a white background, but now "A" and "MAN" are on separate lines, shifting the intonation of the words. Spacing out "A" and "MAN" seems to accent the individual declaration. Painting the sign transforms it from a historical image into an icon of self-assertion.

In one work, Malcolm X gets a makeover.
Courtesy of CAMH
In one work, Malcolm X gets a makeover.

In other text-based work, Ligon took quotes from authors such as Ralph Ellison ("I am an invisible man...") and Zora Neale Hurston ("I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background..."). Ligon takes these quotes and stencils them in black against a white background, repeating them again and again, like a mantra. The text starts out clean at the top but becomes increasingly messy as the stencil is used again and again. The words accumulate upon themselves, becoming unreadable, like a phrase repeated over and over until it's unintelligible. Something about Ligon's uses of these works feels stark and removed. Ligon was born in 1960, and Ellison and Hurston are literary references from the first half of the 20th century. There is a similar feeling of distance when Ligon riffs on runaway slave postings to create personal-ad-type descriptions of himself.

When Ligon shifts to more current and much more outrageous commentary about the black experience from the likes of Richard Pryor, lines from Pryor's unrestrained and uncensored act become both an optical and an emotional punch. Ligon takes Pryor's off-color jokes about color, among other things, and renders them in equally vivid and jarring combinations of hues. He stencils Pryor's profanity-laden lines in an Yves Klein blue that radiates against an intense red, or uses jarring complementary colors like purple on yellow.

In other pieces, Ligon's work becomes more overtly collaborative, such as his project with Minneapolis school kids. Without any specific agenda, he gave them images from late-'60s- and '70s-era coloring books designed to teach black history to children. Ligon purposely gave the kids no specific directions. One gave Malcolm X blue eye shadow, dots of pink rouge on his cheeks and lipstick, feminizing the Black Nationalist icon. Ligon, who is gay, seized upon the image and has used it as the basis for paintings.

But Ligon's riskiest work – and some of the most interesting – comes when he really embraces autobiography. Self-referential art is treacherous territory. You have to have enough judgment to differentiate between things that aren't of interest to anyone but you – and maybe your mom – and things viewers can relate to. The idea of videotaping your therapy session might seem like the height of narcissism. But Ligon is good, and the work doesn't come off that way at all.

He presents video on two separate monitors. One shows the therapist, although we never see her face, and the other shows her office. We don't see Ligon. He trains the camera on the therapist's torso or her feet, and we become engrossed with her arm-crossing, and with her penchant for large floral patterns in pants and skirts. We notice her shoes as her feet rest on a kilim-covered footstool that looks like a miniature Freud couch. On the other monitor, different shots focus on the view from her office window, her bookshelves (complete with Freud bobble-head doll), a hard chair and a worn couch. The office seems sad and badly decorated; it feels like someone was trying to be interesting.

During the session, Ligon talks about art, remembers his childhood and tells interesting stories. And thankfully, he isn't sharing this stuff in a self-important manner; it's as if he were simply trying to figure things out. You find yourself liking him, interested in what he says and in his honesty about his insecurity. Ligon acknowledges his concern about making the piece and confesses that he watched the tape of a previous session and thinks his voice sounded "faggy." Listening to the session, you get the feeling that Ligon needs a smarter therapist. He's bright, quick and self-aware. In contrast, her insights come across as lame and superficial, although I don't think this is the point he's trying to make. Maybe she's just nervous.

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