The Naked Truth

December 14, 2011

“Past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—William Faulkner

Black-on-black commentary is only slightly an inside story. For under the halo of “Negro Sunshine,” at the entrance to Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, I experienced moments of real cultural nostalgia. My mother and the dream book and the endless numbers racket, with its weird logic and odd asymmetrical poetry, were somehow lodged in Glenn Ligon’s magical series of numbered paintings. Apart from the unusually personal in Ligon’s piercing vision, conceptualism—that somewhat elusive creature—seems to find its most complete expression in his oeuvre. Ligon is prepared to stream unflinchingly through various media, extracting elegantly exquisite beauty swathed in a tireless drama of inventions. Here the iniquities of history are refracted and recast. The heroes and heroines are unknown, enfeebled, and lost in time. Irony is legible and graphic, taking the form of a children’s coloring book. He places specificity within our universal American culture and, in doing so, subjects all of us—black and white—to the same memories, more or less. Ligon’s mid-career retrospective directly confronts the not-so-paradoxical complexity of the black male—its frightening history, its Dionysian beauty, its sexuality, its homoeroticism, its fearless honesty, and its dubiously artful texture as America’s existential fall guy.

Installation view, Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Glenn Ligon, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

With a litany of literary heroes, Ligon transubstantiates and time travels, morphing in and out of his own modernity. In conceptualist garb, he is prepared to be the captive of the deep and harrowing effect of the “peculiar institution” of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. Sensitively exploring the alternate self, Ligon is metaphorically boxed as Henry Boxcar Brown. The Narratives series includes WANTED signs and tales in which Ligon himself is implicated. Somehow we are vicariously the searchers. He signals the debilitating psychodramatic manacles of Jim Crow that so tragically traumatized black consciousness. And yet in his own time—in the post-Stonewall, glamorous, ribald, loose, very gay, and irony-rich era—Ligon painstakingly constructs exquisite, modernist, gestural-infused tablet-like paintings of literary, despairing speech that I might have heard around the kitchen table, as though a refrain that hangs in the air as some haunting vestigial “other.” The mimetic chant, the clipped phrases repeated as unholy utterance like an echo in its stencil form, painted over and over again, resulting in a thick accumulation of oil stick caking downward and blurring to a blackness, a sort of shamanistic ending—black angst as blood memory. Or take the contentious Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, where AIDS, black beauty, and stereotyping vie for the naked truth. Ligon repositions Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos as if to capture the rapidly escaping asteroid of black memory, the increasing velocity of which will be flung from our earthly residence to the outer edges of a black emotional solar system.

Installation view, Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Glenn Ligon, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

And yet, of course, it’s art. Ligon is foremost a painter. And though his art is replete with those sticky questions of identity that reside in a fragile balance, he filters it through not-entirely-incompatible attractions of modernism and postmodernism, historical racism and a “post-racial” era. Add to that the crosscurrent of homosexuality, which I suggest is the bravest. I sense in Ligon’s work an inherent duality. He mitigates or sidesteps the rage of the hyper-hetero hip-hop gangsta rapper of his generation, who would readily diss the hyper-sexualized males of Notes on the Margin and A Feast of Scraps. The self-deprecation and the perceptual double edge in the brilliantly bold, neon-colored, profanity-rich “dirty talk” paintings of Richard Pryor’s comedy act, with their reference to “faggot,” shows the fearlessness of his art. Rejection and once again attraction, “gays stay home” yields a source of grandness with the dark indelible photo ink-jet images of Million Man March in Screen and Hands, which seem more universal than simply about a black movement. In my opinion, Glenn Ligon’s art achieves greatness for it possesses what throughout the ages was a quality that digs into our very emotional center—spiritual alienation.

Glenn Ligon, Mirror, 2002, collection of Mellody Hobson, courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles, © Glenn Ligon

And finally, I was most touched by a painting in the James Baldwin series, Mirror. Here the sparkling coal-dust encrusted night bleeds from the canvas. Its dark beauty, as if seen by candlelight, is faintly revealed a letter at a time. Some are captured, but most are lost. Ligon withholds meaning, the clear narrative. More a form of crystal gazing, I move into the interior of the imagination, a felt impulse where texture, blindness, and reach oblige surrender to the lush inscrutableness, which is so often art.

Hylan Booker


Seeing Myself in Glenn Ligon’s America

November 29, 2011

I was first introduced to Glenn Ligon’s work last year when LACMA acquired one of his recent neon reliefs—Rückenfigur (2009). I instantly felt a connection to the work that spelled out “America,” in what felt to me bright, optimistic neon letters (that optimism undercut by the fact that the letters are turned away from from the viewer). Ligon’s work resonated more deeply though when placed in context of his retrospective currently on view at the museum.

Installation view, Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Glenn Ligon, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Whitney Museum curator Scott Rothkopf, who organized the exhibition, noted that Ligon’s work “speaks more broadly, not just to African-Americans or gay Americans but to all Americans,” hence the title of the show: Glenn Ligon: AMERICA. As a second-generation Korean-American—or American-Korean as I’d rather say—I couldn’t agree more. Although I was born and raised in Southern California, I grew up identifying myself as simply “Korean” or “Asian” whether on college applications or a consumer survey trying to bring a new Target store into downtown LA. When asked where I’m from, I usually go through two rounds of answers—(1) my hometown and (2) my parents’ hometown. While I’ve certainly retained a great deal of my ethnic heritage in values and customs, I identify most strongly with the American spirit and voice that has been instilled in me.

Viewing Ligon’s retrospective, I feel that he captures and expresses that individual spirit in a distinct but also relatable way. Though complex in background and meaning, many of his works don’t necessarily need an explanation for a viewer to grasp his ongoing exploration of American history and culture. As someone also unwilling to be categorized, I find Ligon’s work a great expression of the often multi-layered American identity.

Glenn Ligon, Hands, 1996, collection of Eileen Harris Norton, courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles, © Glenn Ligon, photograph by Fredrik Nilsen

 Christine Choi, Communications Manager


Four Questions for Glenn Ligon

October 20, 2011

Glenn Ligon: AMERICA opens to the public on Sunday—and is on view now for members. In anticipation of the opening, we asked the artist a few questions about his first major retrospective.

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, collection of the artist, courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles, © Glenn Ligon, photograph by Ronald Amstutz

The word “America” appears in some of your works (including in Rückenfigur, acquired by LACMA in 2010) as well as the title of the exhibition. Why did you choose that for the title of your retrospective?
The word appears in many of the texts I have used in paintings and neons, and American history and culture has long been the subject of the work. Using the word “America” as the title of the exhibition was a good way to sum up that ongoing interest.

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the 2010 Collectors Committee, © Glenn Ligon, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Early in your career, paint on canvas was your medium. What inspired you to eventually move into other mediums, including photography, drawings, sculpture, and neon?
I chose to work in other mediums because they allowed me to more succinctly address the issues I was grappling with in the work. For instance, the piece Notes on the Margin of the Black Book started as a drawing project but I quickly realized that if I was going to comment on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs it made more sense to use the actual images than to recreate them.

Glenn Ligon, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, 1991-1993, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; gift of the Bohen Foundation, © Glenn Ligon

Notes on the Margin of the Black Book is a reflection on the cultural debates surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe at the time. What was it about Mapplethorpe, or the greater debate, that compelled you to do that piece?
The debates around those photos were a snapshot of larger debates going on in the culture about representation, sexuality, censorship, the role of art in the culture, etc. The piece was an attempt to broaden the range of reference in my work.

How does it feel, thirty years into your career, to see so much of your work presented in whole? To see your works from the 1980s juxtaposed against more recent works?
Retrospectives are a good way to see what you have done and what you still have to do. It is a fantastic opportunity to see things I have not seen in years.

Scott Tennent


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