Refracting Race Through the Comic Lens of Richard Pryor
Richard Pryor figures prominently in Glenn Ligon’s new exhibition, “We Need to Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is,” at the Luhring Augustine Bushwick gallery
Much of the art that interests me most is art that’s made under pressure: social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, political. Pressure of a kind different from that required to land a gallery or make a sale.
In many cases, and for various reasons having to do with gender, race, class, sexual orientation and temperament, artists who do the sort of pressure-driven work I’m talking about are ones who stand both inside and outside the culture they’re part of. I’m not referring to “outsider artists” per se, or to “political artists,” or artists in any market-defined category. I mean artists who, no matter what their circumstances, in some fundamental way don’t fit, and know it. And in ways obvious or ultra-subtle, that knowledge is the energy that shapes and spurs their work.
Glenn Ligon’s exhibition “We Need to Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is,” at Luhring Augustine Bushwick, is a product of pressure doubled. Mr. Ligon’s art has always been about the hard realities of race, and specifically of being a black man, in America. His show, which consists almost entirely of a multipart video installation, focuses on another artist obsessed with the same subject, the performer Richard Pryor (1940-2005), who turned the facts and fictions of American blackness and whiteness into a blistering and supersonically brilliant career-long stand-up comedy act.
Mr. Ligon has a history with Pryor material. As a teenager in the 1970s, he was enthralled by the comedian’s recordings. In the early 1990s, he made a few text paintings based on spicy quotes from Pryor routines. Nearly 100 such paintings have followed since. (There’s one in the show, its hilariously murderous words unpublishable here.) In the video installation at Luhring Augustine, dated 2014, we see the performer himself in action.
The installation is based on the 1982 film “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip,” which documents an evening-length solo gig in a Hollywood theater. Visually, Mr. Pryor is a vivid presence, in a bright orange suit with a yellow flower in the breast pocket. Illuminated by a follow-spot, he prowls the stage, talking, talking, about his childhood, his sexual coming-of-age, marriage, his visit to Africa, his catastrophic encounter with drug addiction. Over and around everything, he’s talking about being black and about how racism sometimes makes him so furious he can’t speak.