A new neon sculpture brightens up the Cochrane Atrium at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It contains three words — blues, blood, bruise — that flash intermittently.
The piece brightens and illuminates, beats and mystifies.
Titled A Small Band, it’s a recent VMFA acquisition created by contemporary artist Glenn Ligon.
The inspiration for Ligon’s work came from Daniel Hamm, a teenager who was arrested in 1964 and beaten by police for a murder he didn’t commit. He was arrested with five others, who came to be known as the Harlem Six.
Hamm was held in prison for eight years before being exonerated. After a night of being brutalized by police officers with billy clubs, Hamm needed to be taken to the hospital, but he wasn’t bleeding. In a tape-recorded testimony upon his release, he said, “I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the blues … bruise blood come out to show them.”
Ligon discovered Hamm’s story through a sound piece by Steve Reich, an innovative composer, who made a looping, haunting song out of Hamm’s words.
“The genesis is this notion of police brutality. But it’s also about believing in the power of speech,” the New York-based artist said while visiting the VMFA earlier this month.
Ligon said he was drawn to Hamm’s slip of the tongue: blending blues, bruise and blood together.
“Ralph Ellison said the blues is personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. This notion of the blues and trauma being connected somehow seemed to be in that slip of the tongue between blues, bruise and blood,” Ligon said. He also said that he thought the three words went together — blues, bruise, blood — like “a small band.”
The 59-year-old artist is best known for his text-based paintings drawn from literature and the words of writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Gertrude Stein.
He began working in neon as a medium in 2005. He said he was drawn to the idea of eclipse, blackness and light in the same space. He was brainstorming ideas with a neon maker who said, “Black is the absence of light.”
“I started thinking about how to register blackness and light in the same space,” Ligon said.
A Small Band made its debut at the Venice Biennale exhibition in 2015. Since then, it has been on view in Chicago at The Arts Bank and in St. Louis, Mo., at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.
In 2011, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held a midcareer retrospective of Ligon’s work.
Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator of modern and contemporary art at the VMFA, first encountered A Small Band when it was in Chicago. In that space, the words stood on the floor so that people could walk through them.
“I had such a visceral reaction walking through those letters and learning about the story,” Oliver said. “These issues become quite cyclical in our society. This is an opportunity to think about them in a deeper, more concentrated way.”
Now, A Small Band has found its permanent home at the VMFA.
Organizers hope that A Small Band, which will be on view in the atrium indefinitely, becomes an iconic work for the museum, much like Chloe or Dale Chihuly’s Red Reeds.
“It has such a presence. I love that it transforms the space over the arc of the day,” Oliver said. “When you hang light as a medium, the space looks different. You can see it from outside. It signifies a really wonderful shift in the museum, that the museum is ready to have certain kinds of conversations: using art to shed light on our past and our present.”