Tag Archives: neon

ADVENTURES IN NEON: HOW “DOUBLE AMERICA 2” IS THE PERFECTLY SYMBOLIC ARTWORK FOR THE TRUMP ERA

Artist Glenn Ligon‘s “Double America 2” is among the most profound works of contemporary American art, and it is profoundly American. It’s absolutely brilliant.

The artwork can read on several levels. At its core is the idea of there being two different Americas or American experiences largely due to race, and, more pointedly, to racism, discrimination and its place in the nation’s history.

It points to the psychology of identity, the sense of black and white, rich and poor, haves and have-nots, exterior image and interior reality, something bright — and brightly lit — and ideal versus something gravely wrong, upside down, dark and flickering.

We’ve seen this artwork several times over the years elsewhere in museums around the U.S. and the world. We recently viewed it at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles (pictured here). It’s the first time we’ve seen Ligon’s artwork since the U.S. Presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump, an event that brought the startling breadth of the nation’s cultural, economic, racial and political divides into the sharpest focus. 

“Double America 2” seems a perfectly pointed and symbolic visual meme for the times, for the condition of the United States in the politically divisive, ugly “Trump Era.”

The Horror: Cash for Ukeleles

Smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far, far away from any significantly large land mass or continent sit the Hawaiian Islands. This archipelago is a well-known paradise full of lush flora, beautiful beaches, dramatic mountain ranges, gorgeous waterfalls, volcanic landscapes and a warm, balmy climate where the water and air temperature are roughly equal year around. For better or worse, it’s a tourist mecca, but still a genuine paradise nonetheless.

Yet there’s a darker side.

It’s often overlooked that Hawaii is home to over a million people! A MILLION people hunkered down on a few small islands in the middle of the Pacific. That’s a million-plus humans planted on the most remote islands in the world! Most of these people are on the island of Oahu and its modern capital city Honolulu. There you’ll find all the features of a large metroplis — Freeways, skyscrapers, multi-level luxury shopping malls, and hipster-run third-wave coffee shops serving creative and obscure espresso-based beverages!

And like almost any major city there are homeless, crime, and some strata of economic misfortune. The last may be most visibly measured in the number of pawn shops in a city, easily spotted in the evening by cheap neon signage that cut right to the chase of the transaction terms.  

It’s a telling sign of contemporary Hawaiian culture when the pawn shop specifically says it offers cash for ukeleles, like the one pictured here in the Kaimuki neighborhood of Honolulu.

The iconic ukelele is Hawaii’s major modern contribution to the world of music and has become a symbol of its culture, even though it was invented in the 1800s and inspired by a Portuguese stringed instrument. Which makes it all the more poignant that there’s probably a person somewhere in Hawaii who is at this moment contemplating pawning their beloved uke so they can pay an unexpected medical bill or make their car payment. That neon sign, and the financial distress it implies, is in stark contrast to every popular image of America’s 50th state.

It’s paradise. But not for everyone, it seems.