Joe Louis Light


Light s a self-taught painter whose colorful, cartoon-influenced style belies an allegorical vision of divine moral order developed through his private religious quest. Joe LouisLight’s life mixes misfortune with the touchingly improbable. Named for a signal African American hero, he was alienated at a young age from his parents, Hiawathaand Virgie (Virgin) Mary. He spent parts of his youth in trouble with the law, and he spent much of the 1960s in a prison cell, where he was inspired by a preacher— along with a mysterious voice and a bird on his windowsill—to convert to the principles of the Old Testament. Renouncing the Baptist Christianity of his youth, hedeveloped a personal faith conditioned by the racial prejudice he experienced in the pre-civil rights era South, as well as suspicion toward Christianity’s effects oncolonized peoples.Upon his release in 1966, Light journeyed throughout the United States, finally settling on Looney Street in Memphis, Tennessee, and starting a family of ten that hesupported by selling bric-a-brac at flea markets. He spread his new beliefs through drawings made on sidewalks and viaducts. In the mid-1970s he created a six-foot-tall fish from an enormous piece of driftwood that he found on the banks of the Mississippi River. He painted his home inside and out with personal symbols (flowers,ships, a river) and text messages about divine remedies for social ills. His house was filled with painted objects, including televisions, fans, mirrors, toys, lamps, dinner trays, and artificial plants. He also used these materials in assemblage paintings he calls “attachments.”Light’s aesthetic has been influenced primarily by what he saw in the flea markets, everything from comics and toys to product packaging and kitsch landscapes. His paintings tell about divine truth through every visual language that their maker has managed to imbibe.The works combine graffiti-like spray-paint abstractions, cartoon heroes, barren Western landscapes, floral motifs, an identification with Native Americans, and a hostof autobiographical symbols, especially a hobo as well as a “Birdman” that he depicts as a human head topped with a bird. Sometimes executed on wood panels or onthe walls of his home, the paintings are often glossed with religious citations and glyphs. Every artwork is motivated by his desire to explain his beliefs to the community,and by his need to enlighten populations that he considers misguided and confused. The paintings also contain a more indirect, inward-looking focus on the obstacles,especially sexual temptation, that he perceives as lying between himself and the attainment of moral purity, uniting his odyssey with that of his audience.