Review

Glenn Ligon takes apart a Richard Pryor performance

Glenn Ligon has been inspired by Richard Pryor since 1994, reproducing the text of his raw, often controversial jokes as paintings. Now in the video installation “Live” at Regen Projects, the artist approaches Pryor from a different angle (or two).

The work is an intriguing dissection of the 1982 concert film “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.” Ligon has stripped out the film’s sound and fragmented the image across seven screens.

The piece is a provocative examination — though not as provocative as Pryor — of a physical performance. It is also a subtle commentary on the representation of the black male body.

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The film is played sequentially in its entirety but is broken up across the screens. Each of six screens focuses on a particular body part — Pryor’s head, groin, mouth, each of his hands  and, interestingly, his shadow. The images appear only when that part happens to be on screen, otherwise the screens are blank. They are suspended from the ceiling in a rough oval, forming a kind of shattered panorama of Pryor.

The seventh screen, tellingly, is set off to the side, resting on the floor. It only comes to life when Pryor’s body is seen in full.

Dressed in a bright red suit with a black shirt and a bow tie, Pryor cuts a dandified, but somewhat shambling figure. The silence and the fracturing of the image ask us to home in on aspects of his physical performance, which is sometimes frantic, his hands warbling like birds. His gestures and facial expressions are more vulnerable than his often indelicate subject matter might suggest.

The fragmentation of the image is almost Cubist, allowing us to see the whole of Pryor’s performance only in parts. With the exception of that seventh, full-body screen, we never feel like we’re seeing the whole picture.

This effect is reinforced by moments in which all of the screens go blank, when the camera was trained on the audience. In leaving these scenes out, Ligon clearly telegraphs his interest not in the film as a whole but in Pryor’s body within it.

There’s a certain violence to breaking it up as he has, echoing our culture’s fixation on certain parts of black men’s bodies.

This atomization can be fetishizing, objectifying, dehumanizing, but it is also a refraction, a multiplication and amplification of aspects of Pryor’s performance that usually escape notice.

In addition to his unexpected vulnerability, the focus on Pryor’s shadow is interesting not only for its parallels to blackness and absence but also as a “body part” that is literally in the background and typically ignored.

It’s also telling that Pryor’s entire body appears only occasionally on a screen outside the main circle. Wholeness is elusive.

With these gestures, Ligon creates a more nuanced portrait of the comedian who himself expanded and complicated notions of blackness in America.

Pryor brought the contradictions and ironies of racism and masculinity to mainstream attention with a rawness and honesty unseen before and unsurpassed since. “Live” reveals how he not only talked about it but also embodied it.

Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive, (310) 276-5424, through Oct. 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.regenprojects.com

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