American artist Glenn Ligon reflects in much of his work the difficulties for African Americans within contemporary American society. Investigating how minorities are still coping with the remnants of slavery and subliminal manifestations of racism, Ligon has become well known for his text based paintings. These works predominantly draw on the writing of such notable figures as Zora Neale Hurston, Jesse Jackson, James Baldwin and Jean Genet.
Glenn Ligon, Untitled (We are the ink...),
1992, Private Collection, Boston
Untitled (We are the ink...) refers to a famous quote from Jean Genet's memoir Prisoner of Love where he states, “In white America the Blacks are the characters in which history is written. They are the ink that gives the white page a meaning.” Being a white amongst blacks, Genet was fighting alongside the Black Panther Party, choosing his words carefully to speak on behalf of them. In this text painting Ligon subverts Genet’s outsider designation “they” and re-personalises the text using “we”. Working with stencils from top to bottom the grease from the stick thickens, increasingly obscuring the black letters. The duality of the black text and the white page embodies Genet’s metaphor of racial power relations and it questions how we perceive and construct oppositional categories of identity.
Glenn Ligon, Untitled (Malcolm X), 2006,
Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery
Untitled (Malcolm X) forms part of a series of works where Ligon conducted an art workshop for young children. He asked the children to colour images that were intended to foster shared cultural knowledge and pride. Based on the children’s drawings, Malcom X – the Icon of Black Liberation – is subjected to a clownish remake. Through the investigation of racial stereotypes as well as the nature of representation, Ligon is interested in the slipperiness of the images he is using and also the anxiety around this slipperiness.
L-R Bruce Nauman, One Hundred Live and Die, 1984 Glenn Ligon, Excerpt, 2009, Courtesy of Private Collection, NY
Excerpt – another of Ligon’s pieces in the exhibition – is a direct reference to a larger neon work by Bruce Nauman entitled One Hundred Live and Die. Set against a dark backdrop the black tubes of “Black and Die, Black and Live” were nearly invisible and are not allowed any agency within the flashing spectacle. Ligon admires Nauman’s precise use of language and sampled this particular excerpt. Using visible black wires and black painted neon tubing so that the white light emanates from the back of the text Ligon’s gesture gives the text “Black and Die” and “Black and Live” its own realm of visibility and amplifies the brutality of Nauman’s words.