Glenn Ligon’s work achieves its effect through repetition: Blocks of text are printed over and over again until thecanvas becomes a nearly illegible cloud of black ink. Random or familiar phrases might get stuck in your head as you leave the gallery. Words are inverted, reversed, and altered. History repeats.
Ligon addresses contemporary racial politics and the complexity of black subjectivity in America through a conceptualist, often text-based practice. Working across several media—including painting, film, and neon sculpture—he is perhaps best known for a series of paintings he began in the 1980s that feature phrases stenciled onto the canvas in black and white. Typically, he culls quotations from many of those who have defined African-American history, literature, or pop culture, from the African-American author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) or the comedian Richard Pryor (1940–2005) to the French novelist and political activist Jean Genet (1910–1986).
Elsewhere, he features somewhat less palatable historical documents: advertisements for runaway slaves or court transcripts. Fragments of text are selected and screen-printed over the entirety of a canvas, which either lends them greater significance or renders each phrase arbitrary through repetition. It is an act that recalls the stenciled alphabets of Jasper Johns, or the irony-laden wordplay of Bruce Nauman. Like both of those artists, Ligon is as interested in using words as pictorial forms as he is in their cultural currency.
Ligon began working with neon sculpture in 2005 with a piece he called Warm Broad Glow. He borrowed the title, along with the phrase “negro sunshine,” from “Melanctha” in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909): “Rose laughed when she was happy but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine.” At the Biennale di Venezia, on the facade of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, Ligon is exhibiting a version of Untitled (Bruise/Blood/Blues) (2015), a new work made up of painted fluorescent tubes that spell out the words in its subtitle. This is part of a new body of work inspired by the words of Daniel Hamm, one of the so-called Harlem Six teenagers who testified to police brutality during the “Little Fruit Stand Riot” and the Harlem riot of 1964 in New York City. Hamm’s recorded words, “Come out to show them,” were sampled, repeated, and abstracted in “Come Out” (1966) by the American minimalist composer Steve Reich, providing an apt formal and conceptual cognate to Ligon’s visual practice.