Search F News...

From Doors and Authors to Porn and Smudges

By Uncategorized

Artist Glenn Ligon Talks about his Multimedia Work

In a society where the ghosts of slavery and racism still haunt our politics and our interactions, conceptual artist Glenn Ligon tackles these issues by appropriating African American history into work focusing on text, voice and noise. Ligon’s lecture was part of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Masters of Fine Art’s Visiting Artist Program. Gregg Bordowitz, the school’s Low-Residency Program director, introduced the lecture with a reading of Day After Day of the Dead, a poem by Nathaniel Mackey, whose work, like Ligon’s, focuses on the meaning and implications of language informed by additional artistic practices.

Ligon described his work as “coming to text, coming to speech or voice, and then coming to noise.” His first works were paintings, influenced by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, which centered around gestural abstraction including bits of brushy text. De Kooning’s quote, “Paint was invented to depict flesh,” inspired Ligon to insert text from porn magazines, exciting his interest in abstracted language.
 

glenn_ligon01

Glenn Ligon. Photograph Courtesy of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Ligon began to explore “what couldn’t be represented,” due to technical limitations he faced with illegibility. Paint often overwhelmed his pencil writings, which he dealt with by using oil stick stenciled letters, but he discovered that this too created a disappearance of the writing as he was unable to create exact, clear letters. The further down Ligon worked on a piece, the more the text would smear, which ended up to be “the most interesting thing about them,” he said. The muddying of the text caused a disappearance, an erasure. No longer easily readable, the smeared, indistinct letters created visual noise and became static.

Ligon continued to develop this aesthetic, taking passages from Walt Whitman, Mary Shelley, Zora Hurston, and James Baldwin. He transcribed their texts onto door panels, each passage containing the personal pronoun “I.” In combination with the body-sized panels, the pieces created a confusion of who the “I” really is. “They’re all quotes, not my voice, but a voice. Not my body, but somehow, a body.”

Ligon was shocked that Baldwin and Hurston hadn’t yet translated to art history, despite the attention given to them in African American history. Giving a voice to things that cannot speak continued to be a part of Ligon’s work when he appropriated slave narratives into written works as part of an installation. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was illegal for slaves to learn to read or write, which often left them unable to share their stories. But as Ligon pointed out, segregation and racism are still structured into our society as “ghosts in current social relations.”

In one body of his work, Ligon took bits and pieces of slave narratives to compose contemporary narratives using friend’s names and changing or adding details that would fit with our current culture, forming a network of stories that has become a voice for those could not speak.

He showed the audience a clip of Baldwin’s powerful attack on the oversight of Christian ideology in the U.S. and its underrepresentation of African-American men, which Ligon found particularly memorizing. Yet there was still “silence in articulateness,” with Baldwin, who was extremely reserved about being gay despite his outward assertiveness. Drawing on this contrast, Ligon added coal dust to his pieces, making text come in and out of legibility, simultaneously materializing and obscuring words.

Ligon has also appropriated and enlarged photographs of the Million Man March. Blowing up the images made them indistinct, like the quality of his text, and without text or captions to contextualize them, they became mysterious. The work became “about a kind of noise [in the] framework of speech and sound and text,” Ligon said.

Thomas Edison’s 1927 silent film Uncle Tom’s Cabin was another source Ligon drew inspiration from, which he attempted to recreate. When he discovered that his film had been damaged, looking “burnt out and abstracted,” Ligon continued to work with it, collaborating with experimental jazz musician Jason Moran who composed sound for the film. The segment of the piece that Ligon screened was fantastically captivating, and drastically different from his direct approach to text.

His current work sources a piece by composer Steve Reich that takes the voice of a young African American “repeated and taken to abstraction,” said Ligon. Printing and overlaying the quote “come out to show them” from Reich’s audio created “patterning and density” in Ligon’s pieces, a visual parallel to the sound Reich created.

This artist’s deep conceptual address of African-American history, race and inequality, alongside his attempts to engage viewers with other’s voices, gives his work the power to change perceptions of language and text in contemporary art.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

18 − seventeen =