Encounters and Collisions @ Nottingham Contemporary

The title of the exhibition, which runs from 3 April to 14 June, is a translation from the Italian incontri e scontri from the work of the same title by Alighiero Boetti. Boetti who was a leading figure in the Italian Arte Povera movement in the late Sixties. Boetti is one of forty-five artists chosen by curator and artist Glenn Ligon to create an exhibition that positions his own artwork as a series of dialogues with other artists.

New York artist Ligon was born in 1960 in the Bronx and is one of the leading American artists of his generation. The chosen artists and photographers such as Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollack, Adrian Piper, Zoe Leonard, Beauford Delaney, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Sun Ra have influenced Ligon’s work, predating or co-existing alongside his work, touching the same kind of themes as those portrayed in his work.

This, to me, novel idea of collecting together related works in this manner and presenting them as a dialogue was very engaging and thought-provoking. Ligon’s idea for the exhibition was influenced somewhat by Adrienne Kennedy’s autobiography “People Who Led to My Plays” which is essentially a chronological catalogue of people and things that influenced her work.

In some cases there was a lot to be learnt about the culture of America especially in terms of race relations and what it mean to be an African-American or other minority voice in the post-war period and up through the Seventies and into the Reagan and Bush administrations. Literature, Civil Rights, Black Power and counter-culture are strong themes. Some works incorporated news reports from the time and were somewhat of an eye-opener for someone who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties in semi-rural Wales and then moved to the East Midlands to a multicultural university town where integration with other races is a given and not, to my mind at least, that much of a big deal.

I was especially taken with Ligon’s text-based works. Some, using coal dust and resin as the main media, consumed and reflected the light in equal measure providing a visual juxtaposition as a foundation to the meaning of the stencilled words which at times are purposely obscured. Other works by Ligon presented quotes from the stand-up comedian Richard Pryor and added a humorous dimension to challenge preconceptions some might hold about African-Americans.

Given the recent events and the racial tensions present in certain America states the exhibition is quite a timely reminder of how African-Americans have been unfairly treated by everyday people, government agencies and the police authorities. My visit was also timely given the current debate about immigration leading up to the General Election in the UK.

The collection is truly international and it was great to see it in Nottingham rather than having to travel to London to see them. The Gallery Assistants were friendly and approachable (which is not always the case in some of London’s art spaces) and there appeared to be a lot of supporting services should one want to delve deeper or get involved. The exhibition space is just as good as any small London gallery. The gallery is a great addition to the city and will hopefully inspire Nottingham Castle, which in contrast, now seems a whole lot less of a contemporary space and very much more remote from its audience both in terms of location and pricing policy (Ligon’s exhibition was free), to up their game.

[The image I’ve used here is my interpretation of Glenn Ligon’s Study for Condition Report which can be seen at the exhibition, hopefully you’ll get why I chose the lowercase ‘i’.]

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