Prologue Series #1 draws upon Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, a seminal novel in the canon of American literature that chronicles the struggles of an African-American man trying to find success in a society dominated by white culture. As the title of the painting indicates, the artist retraces lines from the book's opening chapter, which earnestly lays out its principle themes. On the right side of the canvas, the viewer can make out a section of this crucial line: "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." Yet, it is only a fragment. Ligon distorts the text, transforming the concise, illuminating passage into something half-articulated and mysterious. As Richard Meyer writes, "Ligon teaches us that the material force of the language, the legacy of the borrowed voice, may register most strongly at the very moment of its own vanishing" (Richard Meyer, "Borrowed Voices: Glenn Ligon and the Force of Language" in Exh. Cat., Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Institute of Contemporary Art, Glenn Ligon: Unbecoming, 1997, p. 34). The artist simultaneously invokes a familiar text and restricts one's access to it, compelling the viewer to reconsider his or her prior understanding of the book and its content.
The composition of Prologue Series #1 is fairly unique among the artist's text paintings because of its triptych format. The three sections of black and white text evoke the pages of a novel, but also, as Judith Tannenbaum writes, "replicates the placards carried by striking black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968" (Judith Tannenbaum, "Introduction" in ibid., p. 9). The triptych format also suggests an affiliation with altarpieces, lending the work an additional sense of moral gravitas. By incorporating visual cues from such varied contexts, the artist provides many points of potential contact for the viewer and invites a diverse set of possible interpretations. The artist's handling of the oil stick is also ripe for subjective analysis. Ligon used a stencil to achieve the look of a printed font, but by tracing Ellison's phrases repeatedly on the white surface, the artist creates areas so thick with letters that their assemblage is not even recognizable as writing. Here, the artist appears to formally demonstrate the limitations of language, or rather the myriad of ways in which it can be muddled, misunderstood and censored. The central panel is populated by an especially textured cluster of layered words, which have completely lost their representational affectations. The impasto surface conveys the heavy, repetitive hand of the artist, insisting on the power and exertion of the artist's physical presence. Here, Ligon offers an abstract passage which purports emotive gesture over recapitulated words. In this way, the painting can be understood not only as a reframing of a familiar text but also as an intensely personal narrative of the Ligon's artistic and physical engagement.
On the surface, the central concern of Prologue Series #1 is a commentary on a work of African-American literature, but its intricate formal devices point to a myriad of potential subtexts, both historical and personal. Darby comments, "To be sure, by refusing to produce a positive identification of its subject, and instead planting it deep within the immensity of its influences, Ligon's practice comes audaciously close to making an argument against the possibility of autonomy" (Darby English, "Glenn Ligon: Committed to Difficulty" in Exh. Cat., Toronto, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre (and traveling), Glenn Ligon: Some Changes, 2005, p. 73). Ligon's work demonstrates that no narrative exists in a void, that culture is principally relational, and that a painting, like a work of literature, demands ceaseless interpretation.
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