I was first attracted to Glenn Ligon’s work for its incorporation of language and emphasis on intertextuality. As a reader and a writer I felt connected to the work even before I had seen it in person, and this no doubt added a considerable layer of meaning to my experience of the artist in 30 Americans. For all that I had anticipated and admired beforehand, however, I was still very much struck by the dynamic visual qualities of the work itself. Through a rich and textured application of paint and other media, Ligon blurs the boundaries of communication and creates a visceral plane of beauty, trauma, and confusion.
Though there were several examples of Ligon’s work included in the exhibition, the ones that I engaged with the most were Mirror #7 (2006) and Stranger #21 (2005). These were the first two that I (and everyone else) came into contact with, as they were displayed in the entrance to the exhibition alongside Kehinde Wiley’s Count-Duke of Olivares. The dark abstraction of these two pieces was in stark contrast to Wiley’s vibrant hyperreal portrait. Despite the differences, however, or perhaps because of them, the two artists’ works engaged in an interesting dialogue of power and perception. Whereas Wiley exposes meaning and structure, Ligon covers them up, creating a masked and distorted version of the original source that viewers must experience from outside the realm of understanding.
What makes Glenn Ligon’s paintings different from other abstract works is his use of words rather than objects: he does not observe an object in space and then break it down into primary visual components, but rather inscribes words directly onto the canvas and then uses other materials to manipulate, blur, and cover them up. This creates a tension for viewers between legibility and illegibility; we are aware that there is a literal message to be discerned, but our perception is limited to a few partial words peeking through the ghost-like surface. And even these we experience as texture rather than actual words.
Ligon’s treatment of words and literary sources in his works is a reference to larger cultural problems of language and communication. As an African American and a gay man who grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, Ligon is no doubt aware of the difficulties of ‘speaking from the margins’. His repetitions of certain quotes and phrases are almost mantra-like pleas for comprehension. The melting of these phrases into the overall composition, however, prohibits them from ever being effectively translated. Through this exploration of the visual and symbolic qualities of written language Ligon addresses the tension between knowing and understanding and asks viewers to consider its implications in their own experiences of personal and collective identity.
Glenn Ligon, Mirror #7, 2006. Acrylic, coal dust, silkscreen, gesso, and oil stick on canvas, 84" x 60". Rubell Family Collection, Miami, Florida.
Glenn Ligon, Stranger #21, 2005. Acrylic, coal dust, silkscreen, gesso, and oil stick on canvas, 96" x 72". Rubell Family Collection, Miami Florida.
*Please note: the above is in response to 30 Americans as currently exhibited at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN. My opinions are in no way associated with or representative of the Frist Center, the Rubell family, or the artists.