Amassing words from varied linguistic sources that span novels, non-fiction and poetry, to civil rights slogans and stand-up comedy, found texts have long grounded Ligon’s practice. Foreshadowed by the iconic work Untitled (I Am a Man) in 1988, which used texts from protest signs carried during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike, Ligon’s first solo show - How It Feels to Be Colored Me - established a recurring form for the artist. Held in Brooklyn in 1989, this exhibition witnessed the premier of large-format paintings that consisted of insistently repeated texts, through which Ligon invoked a deliberate destabilization of meaning. Following this seminal show, which took its title directly from Zora Neal Hearston’s 1928 essay, Ligon continued to draw heavily on esteemed African American literary giants including James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison as well as pop-cultural figures such as the groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor. Offering an acute lens on the literary products of African American individuals, Ligon created an intense melding of the personal and political which posited him as one of the pioneering voices of the ‘post-blackness’ conceptual turn in the early 1990s. Epitomized in the work of Ligon, this movement sought to dispel the reductive stereotypes and racial prejudice that has plagued black representation through exploring the variegated achievements and rich cultural products that have stemmed from a diverse sense of black experience. Utilizing the obfuscated clarity of charcoal as a medium, Ligon’s extended series of text works ask what can come about through the remixing of historic literature in a contemporary context, insinuating that identity is never set, but an endless process of construction and deconstruction.
Created in 2011, the present work represents Ligon’s most radical exploration of the duplicitous role of letters as formal signs and as abstract forms in painting. Like the abrasive ruptures to a torn page or the feedback interruption of a degraded digital transmission, the text in Figure #92 has been pushed beyond comprehension through a peculiar mixture of over saturation and negative space. This act of over-writing and under-writing toys with our ability to ‘read’ cultural symbols as well as art’s ability to mystify and demystify. It expresses a history that has been overburdened with symbolism that is incommunicable, thus constituting a paradoxical sense of erasure. Crucially, Ligon employs the potential for political neutrality that is offered by abstraction as “a reaction to the artistic climate” that he began creating work in. As he has extrapolated, it formed “a reaction to the mandates around the work of artists-of-color for a certain kind of legibility. Critics would say, ‘your work is about identity,’ and that would seemingly be enough to say. I was always uncomfortable with that kind of easy digesting of the work, as if artists-of-color are simply expressing who they are, as if one had unfettered access to who one is.” As such, Ligon continues to offer “resistance to that easy narrative of identity.” (the artist cited in “Glenn Ligon: Interview by David Drogin," Museo, 2010)
Ligon embraces abstraction as a way of challenging preconceptions of his own ‘legibility’. By making the texts that he had become associated with now unreadable, Ligon embraces an ecstatic painterly abandon that recalls the aesthetic freedom of Abstract Expressionist forefathers such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Concealing words within abstraction, the artist cements his place within the canon of innovative painters through further subtle references locked in his idiosyncratic technique. The use of silkscreen ink looks back to Andy Warhol, most notably his diamond dust paintings which are recalled in Ligon’s delicate use of charcoal dust, whilst the variegated striations of texture drawn in horizontal bands forge aesthetic allegiance with the Abstrakte Bilder of Gerhard Richter. In the delicate interactions between the minute flecks of dark yet glistening charcoal and a pure white ground, Ligon shows his masterful amalgamation of an elaborate sense of abstraction, with a conceptual strain which fully realizes the profound nuances of cultural identity.
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