Glenn Ligon: AMERICAby: Glenn Ligon
Illustration: Untitled (I Am a Man) © Glenn Ligon. 1988 Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Photograph by Ronald Amstutz
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN we talk about America is more often than not a shadow conversation about who is and who isn't — or who should and who shouldn't be — a "Real American." This is hardly a new phenomenon. The practice of discussing who can and can't lay claim to the name "American" is itself profoundly American, as Americanizing as it is polarizing. Yet the experience is vastly different for those Americans positioned at the limits of inclusion than it is for those who police its boundaries. Membership, it would seem, has always had its privileges.
For Ralph Ellison, the act of writing from the margins (or, as he put it, the "lower frequencies") required "a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike." In the introduction to his aptly named essay collection, Shadow and Act, he writes:
When I began writing in earnest I was forced, thus, to relate myself consciously and imaginatively to my mixed background as American, as Negro American, and as a Negro ... More important and inseparable from this particular effort, was the necessity of determining my true relationship to that body of American literature to which I was most attracted and through which ... I would find my own voice.
Ellison's enforced interrogation of self and society — a kind of metaphoric digging in the crates of history, myth, and the American literary tradition — shares a frequency with the work of Glenn Ligon, another African American artist for whom the past, whether cast in shadow, steeped in phantasm, or clean and well-lighted, is never truly past. His mid-career retrospective,Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, debuted in the spring at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and opened on October 23rd at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Ligon is primarily a painter of text whose references are derived largely from the African American literary tradition, yet this is both a perfectly accurate and perfectly inadequate summation of his artistic practice.
Like Ellison, who as a young writer famously transcribed his favorite Hemingway stories in order to internalize their style and sensibility, Ligon listens to the voices of his literary and cultural forebears — who include Ellison, as well as James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Pryor — as a systematic means of finding his own voice among many others. Ligon's 1990 painting, Untitled (I Remember the Very Day That I Became Colored), exhibited at the 1991 Whitney Biennial, is representative of the work that first brought him acclaim. It features a phrase from Hurston's 1928 essay "How it Feels to Be Colored Me" stenciled repeatedly in thick black oil stick over the primed-white surface of a wooden door about 80 inches tall and 30 inches wide, until it fades into a kind of incantatory illegibility. And, again like Ellison's, Ligon's smart and judicious acts of sampling from history and literature are not mere reverential citations. Instead, they are acute engagements with the weights and forces — historical, lyrical, emotional — of language and image; his works become, by virtue of his brush...