The mid-career Retrospective of New York artist Glenn Ligon showcases approximately one hundred works by the artist, including paintings, photographs, drawings, prints, videos and sculptural installations that span nearly three decades. The variety of media and broad source material join forces to unflinchingly address cultural understandings of race and sexuality in the United States. Taking inspiration from nearly every corner of popular culture, Ligon fuses humor, curiosity, shame, rebellion and shock in his dynamic investigation of American identity. The artist, who is a gay, African American male, imparts his perspective in a boldly exploratory body of work that both activates and educates its audience.
Though primarily dedicated to the state of contemporary black America, Ligon’s emphasis on history and his often iconic modes of self-expression are familiar enough to engage an audience of all ages, races and sexualities. His characteristic use of the English language as a transformative tool reflects Ligon’s own constant reexamination of societal messages and creates a provocative group dialogue between the artist, his sources, and his audience.
Many of Ligon’s large stenciled canvases, including six paintings containing passages from African American author James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” powerfully portray the emotional turmoil behind racial discourse by obscuring, smearing, and loading their text with heavy traces of oil and coal dust. The words on the canvas appear legible in sections, but attempts to follow Baldwin’s accounts of life in an all-white tribal village are ultimately met with Ligon’s impenetrable veiling. Here, the physical building of paint material represents layers of meaning to be found within the narrative. The choice of a black and white color palette mirrors not only the racial issues being discussed but the austere, scientific nature of Baldwin’s documentation. Ligon’s approach to the comedy of Richard Pryor, handled in a later series of paintings, shows a similarly obscured approach to text but shockingly activates the technique through the use of bright, contrasting colors. Though less difficult to decipher than the previously discussed Baldwin canvases, the Pryor excerpts have a disorienting effect on the viewer, which relates directly to the discord of their content. The brash quotations oscillate between funny, offensive, poignant and disturbing. Ligon’s intrusive use of color and texture upon these transcriptions add significant weight to their already potent literary sources, and their play between document and abstraction exposes conflicting mental states at work in the understanding of racial prerogative.
Another powerful piece, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, continues Ligon’s process of commentary through appropriation. It is also his most explicit statement on the marginalization of the African American gay male. Here, images from Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic Black Book series are displayed alongside contemporary public reactions and reviews, as well as reminiscence from Mapplethorpe and his subjects. Featured quips range from accepting, to flippant, to furiously outraged. The discordant opinions juxtaposed with Mapplethorpe’s beautiful yet provocative photographs, including the infamous Man in a Polyester Suit gives a pointed historical meaning to the work that emphasizes the threatening perception of minority felt at the time of its production. While Mapplethorpe’s photos appear timelessly classical in their aesthetic, Ligon’s textural additions anchor the Black Book in its controversial cultural context. Ligon’s kinship with the subjects of the photographs and his sympathy with Mapplethorpe as a fearless creator place him in a middle position, which allows him to empower both groups through the addition of his meticulously chosen texts.
Finally, the neon sculptural installations, including “Negro Sunshine” which bravely faces Madison Avenue, provide a seemingly simple yet deconstructed view of Ligon’s America. In a darkened room, three neon tube sculptures reading “America” in typographic font encircle the viewer as if to offer some sort of advertisement. They hang in a line above the viewer’s head, large in size and weighty in implication. The first installation to the left appears a conventional example of patriotic signage, but the guise of its commercialism is somehow disturbed by the haphazard hanging of cords. The second piece, identical to the first in form, is more stark in deformation with its neon hauntingly unlit. Burned out and skeletonized, it confronts the viewer with an eerie discomfort that brings doubt upon the authority of its literal message. As the viewer continues to read the room from left to right, he or she is met with Ligon’s third neon installation, an oddly disturbing representation of the word “America,” spelled entirely with backwards letters. Here the objectivity of Ligon’s text has dissolved into commentary on the empty promise of a forward-thinking society. Ligon’s manipulation of the language is striking here in its stark compression of legibility and incomprehension.
Though the exhibition’s figural representations such as the iconic 1970s-style coloring book series and runaway slave posters are successful in their juxtaposition of stereotypical black imagery with banal, sometimes humorous language, it is Ligon’s textual representations that pack the most punch. By offering standard, even familiar information in a manner that is illegible, confusing or absurd, Ligon presses the viewer beyond the simple reception of words and into a deeper understanding of their underlying cultural, historical and artistic intentions. In this way, he challenges the viewer to take in not only the words, signs and symbols of the American experience, but the tense feelings of inner turmoil, strength and transformation central to his understanding of black culture.