His name is Joe Lewis Light. His parents named him for the African American boxer whose magnificent career was just beginning when Joe Light was born, and who later became a hero for black Americans in the era of Jim Crow. Joe Lewis Light takes his names seriously, as if they were a preordained responsibility. His surname can denote spiritual illumination. And in this zone of symbols, further portents are found in the given names of Light’s parents, Virgie (Virgin) Mary and Hiawatha: Christianity seems to have crossed with the Native American, and begot the artist. Light considers himself a fighter against ignorance, jealousy, injustice, hypocrisy, and other human shortcomings. He hopes to provide spiritual guidance for his family, neighborhood, and race. He presents himself as a large beacon–he weighs 280 pounds and stands 6 feet 4 inches—a caution light for blacks in North Memphis, a latter-day black Moses hoping to lead his people to the Promised Land but aware all the while that the original Moses never entered it.
Joe Light needs to communicate. His God has defined the ideal world, and Light feels compelled to pass along the definition. For more than thirty years, Light has searched for ways to make God comprehensible. First, Light wrote biblical-sounding pronouncements on sidewalks, and on walls beneath expressway bridges. Then he began painting signs in his yard: signs instructing parents to nurture their children as flowers in a garden; signs that complain about sex education in the schools, which Light is convinced turns teenagers into pimps and prostitutes; signs complaining about the lack of support for blacks by other blacks; reprimands to the government for lying to its citizens and mistreating its minorities. The signs are always challenging and sometimes threatening, yet there is another side of Joe Light. His yard is completely enclosed by fences. “I don’t want nobody coming in,” Light explains, but he really doesn’t want anybody going out, either. It is a voluntary self-incarceration. He worries about his eight children when they leave the house for the outside world. He senses that they are safe inside the house and imperiled outside the gate. He knows what lurks out there, so he stays home as much as he can.
Light’s concerns and convictions are not expressed exclusively to audiences on the outside, for many of his most profound observations are directed principally toward himself. Because he has had no human mentor to guide and advise him along his life’s treacherous road, he serves as his own counsel, as a Moses illuminating the way, fighting the adversaries, leading himself toward the Promised Land. He is Moses and Moses’ Hebrew followers; his art offers insight to others while exhorting the maker to improve himself. His signs will not do for Light’s personal journey. (They are offered to the uninitiated.) So Light has compressed his very elaborate worldview and brightly colored paintings on and around his house, paintings that consist of iconic and often autobiographical human and animal figures, or strange glyphs and calligraphy-like symbols, or metaphorical “cartoons.”
Ask Joe Light about any subject, and his answer will eventually become a discourse on his religious views. Long ago, while listening to a prison chaplain reading from the Old Testament, Light decided to convert to Judaism. When he was young, he had always resented his stern, severe father’s Baptist religion, considering it but a stratagem of the false promises made by whites to blacks. The stern, severe, Old Testament God—God the Father—ideally suited Light’s psychological and philosophical desires. At the same time, Light’s art relies heavily on Christian theology and iconography. His paintings are about salvation and personal transformation, imperatives unique to Christianity among Western religions.
Light uses cruciform flowers and trees to symbolize temptations, often carnal temptation, but also as a preventive reminder of the beguiling words of preachers in pulpits. Light’s rivers, separating the material world (foreground) from the spiritual one (background), suggest baptism as a requisite to enter heaven; Light wants the rebirth without the ritual, and he wants the rebirth in the here and now, not as a shimmering reward available after the end of one’s mortal years. Joe Light, theologically, is not Jewish—he’s the first to concede that—he just does not subscribe to white man’s Christianity. Judaism has served an oppressed and persecuted minority, and Light can relate to that.
For many years, Joe Light made his living selling miscellany each weekend in the flea markets of Memphis. He bought junk for a little bit and tried to move it along for a little bit more. It was not lucrative. Maybe he netted two hundred dollars a month, maybe less. (He also tried selling his paintings but could not interest anyone.) The flea market, however, offered unexpected influences and surrounded Light with society’s kitsch and bric-a-brac, with the de facto pop art of the underclass—plaster statuettes, framed art reproductions, inexpensive household decorations, sports memorabilia, out-of-fashion clothing, comic books and other ephemera, artificial-flower arrangements, and toys of all kinds.
When the day ended there, Light would come home and watch documentaries, cartoons, and cowboy movies on television. Perhaps it was the Westerns, with their indelible panoramas of Monument Valley that instilled in Light the great American sense of landscape. And when the affective medium was not television, it was old postcards and souvenir photos and place mats. Light’s art was being born then. The array of landscapes, from the tiny to the huge, with their boldly colored skies, mountains, rivers, grass, trees, and flowers, were Light’s visual guides to pioneer survival.
Then came what Light calls “attachments.” He often affixed flea-market castoffs to his paintings. Each object—a root, a toy, a sign, a clock, or a hubcap, among many examples—was chosen for its ability to fit as a visual symbol into Light’s evolving iconography.
Although Light attempts to lead his audience (and himself) to a state of peaceful, blissful enlightenment, his art and writings are loaded with conflict. Mythologies constantly clash: Christianity versus Judaism, cowboys versus Indians, white versus black, reason versus instinct, oppression versus freedom. Light identifies with the Indian and the Jew. (And the Arab as well. He was jailed at a time when Islam was rising in popularity among dissatisfied blacks, and he has created signs in an invented, Arabic-like script he calls “Abraham’s writing.”) He refuses to take sides in any of these conflicts, instead positioning himself against the human failures he finds in abundance in all races and among all polarized attitudes. His art employs the proselytizing techniques of white Christianity to advance the causes of nonwhites and non-Christians.
Drawing on his conception of Native Americans, he approaches nature with the respect of a spiritualist and an environmentalist: Light understands that human beings must learn to curb their aggressiveness and greed if they are to live harmoniously on Earth, an Earth he considers autonomous and animistic, possessed of its own will and consciousness. He empathizes with Native Americans, whose dispossession and extermination were underway before the enslavement of Africans in America. Yet Light is also the cowboy. He reflects on the unfeeling, dangerous side of nature, which needs to be understood (a parallel of human nature, of course). The landscape can assume nebulously male and female forms waiting to couple, thus foreshadowing the complex interactions between men and women. Light regards himself as a settler, a pioneer, surrounded by unfriendly territory. The West and the sublime landscapes of Western movies have also invested him with a mixed set of personal mythologies. The cowboy of pop culture tamed and destroyed ecosystems and peoples, while the Indian was a menace and a model of ecologically harmonious existence. From these divided loyalties to divided mythologies, Light has developed a private and personal code of ethics that does not fit any culture’s established rules of order. He is a kind of loner, the star of an old Saturday-morning movie, with a credo of self-defense and self-protection at any cost, and of standing up for truth and honor no matter the consequences. He is convinced of his own righteousness. It justifies the code that Light believes God encrypted in the natural world.
Many of his landscape paintings exhibit horizontal, jagged dividing lines comprising the tips of grass, the tips of mountains, or the ripples of water. Resembling sound waves or electrocardiograms, or perhaps private polygraph tests or musical scores, they enable Light to conceal his ideas so they will remain with him, in secrecy, but still be available for decoding by others. Light wants to be understood, but only by those worthy of his confidence. He wants to convey information but does not want personal contact with a very large audience.
As compared with the American art-historical movement of the 1960s, Light’s particular brand of pop art is unexpectedly sober and serious. Light never pokes fun at the tacky side of American society. He has no artistic or cultural mandate to reconcile it with so-called high art. He never uses art to make an ironic point about material culture. He loves the form of a commercial bottle and a hubcap, and the face of a hero. Low art’s dominant images are icons for those without access to the world of high art. The only connections Light has with the world of high art are its remnants that have made their ways to the flea markets, or those that have come to him diminished by the limitations of his TV screen.
Light fashions a religion from this high-to-low fusion. He redeems the bric-a-brac, honors it, and makes it respectable, even holy. And in so doing he devises a universal theology according to Joe Light, with large illustrations (often four feet by eight feet), that guide the viewer toward enlightenment and salvation. He constantly appropriates imagery and ideas from his surroundings. Light often paints over framed reproductions from the flea markets, retaining the imagery of the originals while transforming them into personal statement (such as Play It Again Sam, Amigo, and Maggie).
He paints Old Testament narratives on his house’s walls, but the stories of Adam and Eve banished from Eden, or Lot and his wife fleeing Sodom, become TV’s Flintstones types, Pebbles and Bam Bam. He takes old hit songs from forty-fives and records his own lyrics over them. His revisions often seem straight-forward and gentle:
You are as pure as white on rice,
Sugar and, spice,
And everything nice.
So take my advice
And kiss me twice.
The song adorned a wall decoration made from a plastic cafeteria tray. Even then, it was more a warning to himself than a paean to a woman’s love. The flowers, the flowing water, the imposing mountains, and other symbolic obstacles and barriers to salvation permeate the tray. Other lyrics are more revealing, as with a recording over a Dean Martin love song:
My father wasn't a good man,
But he did the best he could.
I never understood my father,
But God understood.
If Joe Light had a choice of careers he would be a blues composer and singer—no doubt a psychologically complex one.
In 1987 Lonnie Holley decided he wanted to meet other southern African American artists, and he visited Joe Light. Holley was soon combing the neighborhood for interesting things and people. He returned excited. Across the street from Light, Holley had found a man named Felix Virgous, who, in imitation of Joe Light’s house, had covered with paintings and drawings a garage behind Virgous’s mother’s house. Light was unaware of Virgous’s decorated garage, even though it had existed for years. Joe Light is not curious. He already knows what he wants to know.
The front porch and yard of Light’s house are “aimed” at the community. This is the domain of Joe Light the social critic, spokesman and evangelist for minority races and religions. There are (or were—he painted them over after two decades) autobiographical, cartoon like images on his shutters, across the façade of his house: a boat with a rope tethering it to a pole; an insect extracting nourishment from a flower; a country bumpkin holding a dead rabbit; a hobo with the obligatory knapsack. Aimed solely at himself, their messages are as follows: don’t be a drifter, take care of your health, do what you must to provide for your family, and go to any length to seek enlightenment.
Light exposes his metaphorical self-portraits to the passers-by, knowing they will not understand, but hoping that they will be attracted and amused—and if he draws them toward his house, he feels he has them hooked. They will then read his signs, straighten out their lives as per his instructions, and help make Looney Street (his street’s name) and the city of Memphis better places to live. That is how it should work; its failure disappoints Light but does not deter him.
Inside the house lives Joe Light, husband and father. There have never been signs inside the house. He instructs his family differently, with entertainment mixed with love and mysticism: private symbols side-by-side with cartoon characters; strange glyphic forms and painted appliances; hand-decorated mirrors, vases, clocks, TV sets, and trophies; clusters of old photographs and mementos attached to walls throughout the house, shrine like, comprising a visual history of, and homage to, individual members of his family.
It may be paranoia that causes Light to say, “There’s a lot of people out there trying to get me.” Or he may know something. He opposed some of the tactics of the civil rights movement, so he is certain that its leaders wanted him silenced. He criticized some of the Kennedy administration’s actions and he has no doubt that someone in the nation’s capital orchestrated his frequent incarcerations during the 1960s. He lambastes his neighbors with criticisms of their and their race’s shortcomings, and he scoffs at their heroes. He then wonders why he is the most unpopular resident of the neighborhood. With more sadness than anger, he says, “Nobody ain’t never planning to let me live in peace.” When told that his art may bring him acclaim and with it the attention and the respect he deserves, Light shrugs with resignation, and sounding like a talking blues singer, voices observations shared with many black artists of the South: “They don’t want my kind of truth going out there.”