Born in the Bronx, New York in 1960, Glenn Ligon is an American conceptual artist whose work explores race, language, desire, sexuality, and identity. He is best known for his text-based paintings, made since the late 1980s, which draw on the writings and speech of diverse figures including Zora Neale Hurston, Gertrude Stein and Richard Pryor. Growing up in New York, Ligon took art classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and learnt first-hand about identity politics through the racism and homophobia that he encountered on the streets. He combines this formal art education and personal history to create emotionally charged works with challenging messages.Ligon’s white neon Warm Broad Glow II puts the words ‘Negro Sunshine’ up in lights, but their shine is obscured by matt black paint and their light now highlights the white structure behind them. These words are taken from Gertrude Stein’s 1909 novel, Three Lives, Stein wrote, “Rose laughed when she was happy but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine. Rose was never joyous with the earth-born, boundless joy of negroes.” Stein was speaking to the broad racial stereotype of her day, and Ligon’s reclaiming of these words removes the text from its original context and asks us to confront the visceral and evolving nature of language and stereotypes.
Black Rage (2015) again taken from a literary source, this time a facsimile of the cover of the landmark 1968 publication ‘Black Rage’. In it, two psychiatrists examine the insidious effects of slavery on the lives, loves and actions of African-Americans in the face of persistent racism. Cracks, abrasions and dents are recorded in the manner of a conservator checking the condition of an object. These notations describe the various flaws found on the cover due to age and wear, the detached and methodical mode of their reporting is at odds with the anger of emotion asserted by the title. Ligon’s work is an incisive exploration of American history, literature, and society that questions and criticises the persistence of racism through the legacies of painting and conceptual art. Whether constructed from neon lights, coal dust, glitter, paint, or photographs, Ligon’s work fluctuates between humour and startling honesty, reminding viewers that intolerance remains ubiquitous.