A casual observation of American artist Glenn Ligon’s paintings and prints might lead one to believe that they are looking at the work of someone with developmental problems; text on paintings that express degenerate, deviant thoughts. One might also expect a frightful experience to hear him in person but his speech is so calm and eloquent that such expectations disappear, leaving one to wonder if the works are in fact done the same person.
Phrases that express racially and socially induced self-doubt and alienation repeat over and over again, filling the canvas and fading into oblivion, as the text, oil stick smudges and charcoal dust blend together into an undecipherable black or white mass, or mess. Taken from the works of canonical African American writers, his earlier works seem more emotional, expressing the feelings of what it might feel like to be a black person in America at the time, while the more recent works are conceptual, highlighting irony and inherent contradictions in society.
Perhaps this pervasive contradiction is what leads one to have such a contrasted inner and outer being, which happens to occur over and over again in his works. Hands (1996), about a political protest on the plight of African Americans that took place in Washington D.C., highlighted the fact that black women were encouraged by the organizers to stay at home; they only wanted men to participate.
Peoples’ hands raised at a political rally usually meant they wanted something, like equality or recognition. But here it is unclear whether they were reaching to demand something, were receiving something from a higher power or raising their hands in celebration, like at a rock concert. The ambiguity mirrors the questions Ligon had about the whole purpose of the march where hands reached out for more equality, yet they privately practiced inequality.
Condition Report (2000) is one of the few of Ligon’s works that focus on sexuality; an affirmation of his gender and personhood which has to do with identity. But the fact that one would need to affirm one’s gender says something about a certain precariousness and insecurity surrounding the issue. This becomes clear when one realizes that Condition Report is actually a conservator’s report on the physical condition of Ligon’s I Am a Man (1988) print, shown on the left. It alludes to the ever changing nature of life itself, where notions and ideas, of something as fundamental as a person’s gender can over time become eroded.
But curiously I Am a Man (1988) is based on a picture of the Memphis garbage workers’ strike in 1968, where everyone held up the same sign saying “I Am A Man”. Obviously the definition of ‘a man’ here has changed over time from ‘a man’ meaning a human being, to Ligon’s ‘a man’ meaning ‘of male gender’ (lest they all be having gender fluidity issues) and demonstrates the erosion, a warping of the meaning of basic words in human consciousness.
I Was Somebody (1990) which was reworked in 2003 to make the words ‘camouflaged’ against the white background, is a take on Jesse Jackson’s rallying cry of “I am somebody” for more racial equality during a ‘black awareness’ political rally / concert in the early 1970s, the origins of which was the Watts riots of 1965 against police brutality. The words ‘I am somebody’ itself is a little contorted; it actually means ‘I’m not a nobody’, but organizers didn’t want to focus on the negative or maybe thought it’d be too direct.
And so in 1991 Glenn Ligon’s I Am Somebody echos through the night, as a recent graduate of Whitney’s ISP program, sitting alone in his New York studio, not sure if its going to work, reminiscing Jesse Jackson’s mantra echoing around a packed LA Coliseum, as the words fade into oblivion. But the question is, if Ligon needed to remind himself that he is somebody, that he could be somebody in 1991, surely by 2003 he knew who he was having been to the Venice Biennale in 1997 and Documenta 11? And why would he even say ‘he was somebody’ meaning that he used to be a somebody but is now a nobody, meaning that he had lost his identity and self worth?
Warm Broad Glow (2005) uses the phrase ‘negro sunshine’ taken from Gertrude Stein’s 1909 novel Three Lives which is used to describe black people who have this ignorant, blissful, happy-go-lucky countenance. It is a statement that labels a whole race of people to having a certain outlook in life, who derive joy from the simplest pleasures which is somehow ‘lower’ than others who have more complicated tastes. But Stein’s intention was to use reverse psychology not to humiliate but to draw attention to such racist notions at the time; she pretended to be racist to highlight such attitudes.
In Glenn Ligon’s Negro Sunshine, its a little bit more complicated than that. For one thing, its black, which in itself is an absurd gesture as neon lights are supposed to be seen and black doesn’t emit light. But its backside is clear which allows light to illuminate the wall behind, creating a solar eclipse effect, as the squiggly words melt into lines that drip off the ends to the ground. Bright, outgoing and loud, neon signs have a certain place in creating or recreating a sense of nostalgia for the west; a type of crass, highway freedom in American culture. Here, it seems Stein’s carefree ‘negro sunshine’ outlook in life has become somehow unattainable, the inner radiance shrouded in a dark veil as newfound awareness melts away the all encompassing bliss. But in the 12 years since this piece maybe things have changed.
In No Room (Gold) #42 (2007), again there are contradictory statements between the title and the content, and within the content itself. One might wonder when and what caused him to ‘not consider himself a nigger’, which is is possibly when he started to make artwork for a portfolio to enter the ISP. The absurdity is in the word ‘nigger’ as it commonly refers to one’s race, but here Ligon uses it to describe a mindset, an attitude that one has towards oneself if he or she is black.
And if one has ever heard African Americans call themselves ‘nigger’, (pls. watch Pulp Fiction for an example), one might also find that they get all upset if someone from another race uses that word. But if they use it amongst themselves, it means something else, something like the word, ‘brother’. So if ‘nigger’ has become a drug that black people use on themselves, to promote a familiarity but also a type of caged captivity, then Ligon had “gave that shit up” or set himself free from it.
“There’s a sort of pessimism in my work, a pessimism about making things explicit or understanding things and transmitting that understanding.” Glenn Ligon 2011
Which goes back to the meaning of I Was Somebody (2003), for if Ligon needed to remind himself that he is somebody in 1991, by 2003 he for sure knew who he was and that person was someone not subject anymore to the same captive frame of mind.
But its more than that. For the act of using someone else’s words in a painting signifies a sort of ‘inhabitation’ of that person as well as produce a ‘dual-voice’ effect from that person that existed decades ago. And after 2003, there is a shift in that the text used appears as more blurred and illegible right from the start, the result of much soul searching and relates not only to the erosion of meanings in words over different eras, but also to this notion of frustrating communication as the paint and charcoal dust merge and obliterate boundaries.
The fact that he wasn’t comfortable being labeled as an ‘identity’ artist, yet considers the bulk of his work as a ‘self-portrait’, is indicative of the irony and inherent contradictions within. The complete obfuscation of the text seen in the later paintings also relates (at certain times) to the perceived world outside; a blurry, bewildering place where established notions warp and where diametrically opposed values are held simultaneously.