April 20, 1960
Glenn Ligon is an African-American visual artist who uses language to question issues pertaining to race, sexuality,
and identity. Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1960, he studied at Wesleyan College, where he received his B.A, and at the Rhode Island School of Design. During the 1980s and 1990s, Ligon was among a cadre of black and Latino artists who began using structuralist and post-structuralist theory to deconstruct commonly held assumptions about race, sexuality, and gender. In many of his works, Ligon focuses specifically on language as an ironically self-sufficient system for negotiating issues concerning identity formation.
Ligon's works frequently appropriate sections from historically significant literature, as well as euphemisms from African-American popular culture and folklore tradition. In this way, Ligon is able to examine the relationship between language and meaning, and to explore the implications of subjectivity and intent. Ligon thus combines speech with conceptualist and minimalist strategies in multimedia prints, paintings, and installations that incorporate language as an important component of his visual art. In 1998 Ligon began his Stranger in the Village series of drawings and paintings. In this series which continued until 2004, Ligon often stenciled excerpts of James Baldwin's classic text onto a canvas and then covered the text with multiple layers of coal dust, rendering the author's statement partly illegible. Where Baldwin elaborates on the experience of being an outsider—as the only black man to have visited an isolated Swiss village—Ligon's encrusted paintings intimate a mounting tension synonymous with the author's testimonial. As the artist has commented on the importance of text in his work: "Text demands to be read, and perhaps the withdrawal of the text, the frustration of the ability to decipher it, reflects a certain pessimism on my part about the ability and the desire to communicate. Also, literature has been a treacherous site for black Americans because literary production has been so tied with the project of proving our humanity through the act of writing" (Firstenberg, p. 43).
From 1994 to 1998, Ligon worked on a project titled Feast of Scraps, through which he critiqued the notion of identity and sentiment associated with the family photo album by creating such an album filled with vintage gay pornography. The photographs are captioned with statements such as "Mother Knew" and "Brother." By incorporating images with subversive texts, Ligon puts before the viewer a union of identities commonly associated with notions of both morality and immorality—identities that are secretly acknowledged yet excluded from both the verbal discourses and visual artifacts that make up familial identity. Through this process, Ligon also called attention to the irony inherent in the highly selective and exclusionary practices with which people construct and legitimate familial and larger historical narratives. Ligon revisited the family photo album for his web-based project, Annotations (2000), a digital twenty-page album that is itself linked to multiple layers of visual information, including photos, hand-written narratives, and audio clips. It was Ligon's intention for this progression to mimic the ways in which memory works, through reminiscence, correlation, and suggestion. Moreover, in Annotations, references to race and African-American history are continual subtexts for the work as a whole. Periodically, images containing texts (such as "Harlem is Burning") are juxtaposed with subversive imagery referencing the photographer Edward Steichen's 1955 exhibition and publication, The Family of Man.
Firstenberg, Lauri. "Neo-Archival and Textual Modes of Production: An Interview with Glenn Ligon." Art Journal 60, no. 1 (spring 2001): 43.
Ligon, Glenn. Un/becoming. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1998.
Ligon, Glenn. Coloring: New Work by Glenn Ligon. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2001.
leronn brooks (2005)