Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon: Some Changes


Glenn Ligon: Some Changes surveys the breadth of Ligon’s oeuvre over the last seventeen years.

Co-curated by Wayne Baerwaldt, Director, The Power Plant, and Thelma Golden, Deputy Director, the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York

Glenn Ligon: Some Changes surveys the breadth of Ligon’s oeuvre over the last seventeen years. Ligon is at the forefront of a generation of artists who came to prominence in the late 1980s on the strength of conceptually based paintings and photo-text works that investigate the social, linguistic and political construction of race, gender and sexuality. Incorporating sources as diverse as James Baldwin’s texts, photographic scrapbooks and Richard Pryor’s stand-up comic routines, Ligon’s art is a sustained meditation on issues of quotation, the presence of the past in the present, and the representation of the self in relationship to culture and history.
 
Glenn Ligon: Some Changes provides a rare opportunity to view nearly fifty significant works including Untitled (I Am A Man) (1988), Runaways (1993), The Richard Pryor Paintings (1993–2004), the award-winning web-based project, Annotations (2003), and the installation The Orange and Blue Feelings (2003).
 
Painting is the compass for Ligon’s trade in ideas, especially those informed by modernist aesthetics and the inconsistencies of society’s and the media’s take on the black body politic. These formative ideas are reconstituted and transformed again in Ligon’s ongoing process of painting.
 
The process of revision enriches the work in other media and facilitates a dynamic meditation throughout his work. It is a deliberately circuitous process whose forms and subject matter double back on themselves, re-informed and re-energized by the artist’s ongoing investigations. It is also a self-reflective art making that engages a variety of forms including moving images, installations, found photographs, large-scale photo transfers, and other media and techniques. Rather than diverting attention away from concerns central to his art making, each foray into another medium triggers a reaction in Ligon’s painting that provides unsettling reminders that modernist painting can remain open-ended and receptive to new information without abandoning its dual ideals of universality and timelessness. The sense of a pervasive, gritty reality underlying his appropriated literary sources alternately sustains another, more emotional reading of Ligon’s text-based work, one that evokes both inspiration and despair.
 
Ligon expresses a consistent and meticulously considered view of the world from a perspective that is deeply concerned with the practical politics of a personal voice speaking for the experience of many. He stretches a modernist vocabulary for painting to establish new critical positions. Ultimately it is not the range of Ligon’s interests as a painter that is so unusual. Instead it is his ability to shift visual and literary meaning by making personal the exploration of what may seem to be historically weighted texts and images. His appropriated narrative forms and literary subject mattercan be both personal and timeless. It is an inter-disciplinary, inter-generational approach to a visual-literary reading of black identity through the zoom lens of twentieth century African-American culture, ranging from the doctrines of philosopher W. E. B. Dubois to the bawdy humour of stand-up comic Richard Pryor. Ligon repeatedly engages subject matter that pulls historically specific literary narratives into contemporary focus by asking viewers to revisit, for example, the words of American authors such as James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison. His text paintings are politically and racially charged personal statements – Hurston’s words from 1928 stand out: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Ligon adopts an implied autobiographical voice and body to stand in for the collective generational experience. This approach challenges the far reaching assumptions of a mainstream white culture whose reality is often regulated by the institutionalized containment of race relations and “diversity management.”
 
To coincide with the touring exhibition, The Power Plant is publishing the first significant monograph on Ligon’s work. Catalogue essayists Huey Copeland and Darby English interpret the development of Ligon’s oeuvre as a continuum of public and private constructions of identity, a performative investigation of appearances and the gaze that links disparate appearances to form a critical representation of reality. Each author brings forward the contradictions of an artist who has invested considerable energy in questioning what is essential to his art making by asking himself, “What isn’t possible?” Further contributions by Wayne Koestenbaum and Mark Nash reflect on selected works that exemplify Ligon’s ongoing process of revisiting modernist concerns by pulling and probing the complexities of race and representation.
 
The final catalogue text is a revealing interview by Toronto artist Stephen Andrews, Ligon’s friend and confidant. A more candid recollection of childhood and the first inkling of selfhood as an artist would be difficult to imagine as Andrews coaxes Ligon to think about the humour and pathos, hope and despair that run through his work over the past seventeen years, and provides a rare glimpse into the future.
 
Glenn Ligon: Some Changes travels to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (January to April 2006); the Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (30 September to 31 December 2006); the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus (27 January to 22 April 2007) and Mudam - Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg (6 October to 17 December 2007).
 
Ligon’s work has appeared in documenta XI, Kassel (2002); the XXIV Bienal de São Paulo (1998) and the Venice Biennale (1997). His extensive exhibition history includes solo shows at Kunstverein Munich (2001), the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2000), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1996), and the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington (1993). His work has been included in important group exhibitions such as Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated), the Guggenheim Museum, New York (2004); The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-2000, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1999); Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1994); and Dark O’Clock, Museum of Modern Art, São Paulo, and Plug In, Winnipeg (1994).