Tuesday, May 13, 2008

No Love For Black Artists In Memphis...

Photos by Mike Maple/The Commercial Appeal
Local black artists had some interesting reactions to Glen Ligon's exhibition at Power House Memphis recently. In the foreground is Anthony D. Lee, and others included (from left) Danny Broadway, Jerry Lynn, Terry Lynn, Lester Merriweather and Kiersten Williams.

Local Black Artists Probe The Memphis Milieu's Depths

By Fredric Koeppel

Saturday, May 10, 2008

On learning that an out-of-town collector attended the opening reception for Glen Ligon's "Love & Theft" exhibition at Power House Memphis and paid more than $100,000 for the word "America" spelled in neon, Anthony Lee let out a whistle of astonishment and admiration.

"That's cool," he said.

Lee was part of a group of young black artists who met recently to view the exhibition by Ligon, one of the country's most prominent and controversial black artists.

While the artists reacted to the exhibition in light of Ligon's work and its connections to Memphis, ultimately the visit to "Love & Theft" led to a discussion of their own place in the local art community and the reality that as black artists they depend largely on the attention of a white audience.

"We were looking for an African-American artist to create work in response to the city," said James Patterson, president of the nonprofit Power House Memphis/Delta Axis. "Glen Ligon was a great choice. We were thrilled because he doesn't do that many shows. This exhibition really meets our mission of bringing nationally known artists to Power House and letting them interact with the environment and the city. He produced a very thoughtful show."

Power House (now Power House Memphis) opened early in 2003 with the intention of bringing nationally and internationally known cutting-edge artists to Memphis to produce exhibitions

reflecting the unique physical setting of the former railroad station power house and the city surrounding it.

Ligon, 48, is widely known for his work, often incorporating text and photography that challenges racial, cultural and sexual stereotypes. He has been included in such prestigious invitational exhibitions as the Whitney Biennial in New York (twice) and the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel, Germany. He also has shown at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the International Center for Photography in New York, where he lives.

Joining Lee, 28, at Power House Memphis in the South Main Arts District were artists Danny Broadway, 33; Lester Merriweather, 29; Jerry and Terry Lynn (who paint under the name "Twin"), 32; and Kiersten Williams, 26.

The exhibition, "Love & Theft," consists of two parts.

In the upstairs North Gallery, Ligon covered three walls with black and white "wallpaper" that reduces a civil rights-era photograph (also used by Andy Warhol) to repetitive abstract patterns. Over this background, the artist hung gold panels with quotations in blurry black letters from raunchy, scatological routines by groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor, who recorded his early comedy albums at Stax in Memphis.

In the larger, downstairs South Gallery, Ligon and his assistants painted on the floor 12 phrases and slogans the artist saw while driving around Memphis. They include "U Love God R Way"; "Nothing Left To Lose"; "Top $$ For Broken Gold"; "Something About The Police"; "He Your Baby Girl"; and "Ugly Beauty."

On a nearby wall hangs Ligon's "Condition Report," a two-part work that examines and satirizes the consequences of the civil rights movements by seeming to check on the "condition" of an "I Am A Man" poster. Finally, high on the gallery's south wall, is the neon "America."

In response to the question, "What does this exhibition have to do with Memphis?" Merriweather, indicating the slogans painted on the floor, said, "This just offers glimpses of what Memphis is. If the artists stayed in Memphis longer, they would get more exposure to the city."

"If I came to Memphis and had never been here," said Broadway, "the first thing I would notice is that the city is pretty racially divided. As an artist, I feel it's a challenge to bridge the gap between the communities. You would have to spend time here to understand."

Broadway asserted that anyone walking into Power House to view "Love & Theft" wouldn't be able to tell if the artist was black or white.

"No, these are automatic signifiers," Merriweather said, referring to the exhibition's racially and culturally charged texts and imagery. "Things like 'I Am a Man,' that's the kind of image we deal with. ... It's so closely ingrained that it couldn't go both ways."

"It's like using the n-word," said Jerry Lynn. "It has to be a black person."

"It's the context that matters," said Merriweather.

There was a consensus among the artists that the exhibition, as powerful as it is, isn't suited for a general audience.

"It's a good show for us, for artists," said Lee, "but it's going to go over people's heads."

"There's a disconnect between what's happening with this imagery and what is usually accepted as art in Memphis," said Merriweather.

"Artists walk a tightrope in Memphis," said Jerry Lynn. "This show is more avant-garde. You can get away with more here at Power House."

"This is for people who hang around Power House," said Broadway, "the art professors and such would be here, but the ordinary community ..."

" ... if there's some way to connect those worlds," said Williams.

For young black artists in Memphis, connecting the worlds of creativity and commerce may require compromise.

"In New York, hundreds of people may go to a gallery," said Jerry Lynn, "but in Memphis you have to understand ..."

"... you have to adapt to the environment," said his brother, finishing his thought.

"I'm only two generations from sharecroppers and one generation from segregation," Jerry Lynn continued, "so who am I to say, 'I have the responsibility to engage my people.' It's a blessing just to be where we are, standing here as artists."

"He may not even understand this type of setting, you know, the city of Memphis," said Broadway.

"But," said Jerry Lynn, "look around here, he's feeling the issues."

Anthony Lee brought up a slightly different aspect of the audience issue for these artists, the lack of black support.

"Right, the message is still there," he said, "but I always feel that if I create a painting, it reinforces the fact that I'm a black artist sustained by white patrons. It's going to take a collective effort and education to get black people to buy art."

"Someone would have to have a knowledge of contemporary art," said Jerry Lynn. "Most black people in Memphis didn't go to art school."

"The money is here," said Kiersten Williams, "but people choose what they spend their disposable income on, they don't understand the value of art.

"It's hard when even your family doesn't understand what you're doing, or you say you're an artist and people give you a questionable look."

-- Fredric Koeppel: 901-529-2376

Glen Ligon Exhibition

"Love & Theft" will be displayed at Power House Memphis through May 31. The gallery is at 45 G.E. Patterson, immediately west of Central Station in the South Main Arts District. Hours are noon-6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1-6 p.m. Sunday. Call 578-5545.

© 2008 Scripps Newspaper Group

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