chapter
3 Pages

Glenn Ligon

The text references many sources: “Stranger in the village” refers to the 1953 essay by James

Baldwin;1 “I am an invisible man,” references the Ralph Ellison novel;2 and Zora Neale Hurston’s

text is referenced in “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.”3 The

repetition of the text, and its visibility and erasure, occurs in the application of thick encrustation

of oilstick and coal dust, adding to the reductive and seductive quality of the paintings. The

text appears to float on the canvas, sometimes at center, other times hovering closer to the top

or bottom. However, the readability of the words is obscured by the overlaying paint, rendering

the text almost illegible. Bordering on notions of abstraction, Ligon’s practice employs formal

strategies as a way to engage the viewer. It is precisely this type of engagement that gives Ligon’s

work a sense of complexity, of operating on multiple layers. As Richard Meyer has written, “For

all the seeming dispassion of Ligon’s formal method (monochrome palette, stenciled letters,

repeated words), his text paintings are supercharged with affect. They speak a first-person voice

Ligon reveals what it feels like to be an outsider, and he challenges assumptions about

race with powerful wit. Continuing his appropriation of text, in the neon work, Untitled (I Sell

the Shadow to Support the Substance) (2006), Ligon borrows text from Sojourner Truth’s carte

de visite to draw comparisons between Truth’s relationship to public discourse as a nineteenth-

century black female, and his own as a black male artist living in the twenty-first century. By

blacking out the front of the neon instead of the back of the neon, the works glow from behind,

giving the simultaneous sense of illumination and darkness, while elegantly touching on the

issues of opacity, repression, and invisibility.