Language possesses the power to inspire and incite. One hundred years ago in Atlanta, a group of citizens joined together and began attacking and killing blacks. History tells us the activity began with a few choice words: "Are we going to let them do this to our white women? Come on, boys!" The violence continued for four days.
Histories, especially those discarded and forgotten, are, like language, fertile source material for contemporary artist Glenn Ligon. A New York-based artist, Ligon daringly addresses social constructs of race, language, sexuality and gender. Through painting, sculpture, printmaking, installation and video, he explores issues of identity and representation. Glenn Ligon: Some Changes, an exhibition of nearly 50 works co-curated by Wayne Baerwaldt and Thelma Golden and currently on view at The Andy Warhol Museum, is a rich retrospective.
Ligon's concern with the power of language to define and marginalize provides an important analysis of U.S. history and culture. Using a collection of cultural and historic references, Ligon digs into the complexity of the issues he addresses. It's not an easy show.
The words Ligon uses are not his own. Rather, he utilizes a range of African-American literary, political and popular voices, from Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to Richard Pryor. Ligon appropriates and revises in ways that leave the viewer with more work to do.
In a series of eight paintings, Ligon uses segments of Pryor's standup routines from the '70s and early '80s, including "Niggers Ain't Scared" and "Cocaine (Pimps)." As we read the disfigured phrases ("Niggers had the biggest dicks in the world and they was trying to find a place where they could have a contest ..."), the obscenity confronts us. Ligon further complicates matters by using bold color palettes and allowing text to blur. In print -- without Pryor's facial expressions, voice and intonations -- we lose the sense of comedy. The work feels immediate and forces a response: sympathy, disgust or shame.
Running through the work are explorations of identity, invisibility and power. In the museum's lobby, a sculpture spells out the words "Negro Sunshine" in neon typewriter text -- literally a welcoming sign for some, but for others probably slightly disturbing.
Elsewhere, in one series of four etchings (1992), Ligon chooses a set of sentences from Ellison's Invisible Man: "How it feels to be colored me," "I am an invisible man," "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background." He repeats the stenciled phrases until the text bleeds and becomes difficult to decipher. The words change appearance (black on black, white on black, black on white), but their power to influence remains.
Ligon keeps history at the center of his work; history, like words, has the power of definition. In "Ranaways," a series of 10 lithograph prints, he recasts fugitive-slave posters of the mid-19th century. Ligon uses the style of the historical postings, with their matter-of-fact descriptions of the slaves' physical bodies, but amends each with statements culled from kind descriptions he solicited from 10 friends who were asked to describe him as if to the police in the case of a disappearance: "He has a sweet voice, is quiet"; "Appears somewhat timid." Ligon situates himself in American slavery's historical legacy as a symbolic force that continues to reverberate within contemporary black American life.
Also on view is "Have Another Piece: Just a Little Piece ..." It's a great show that Ligon himself curated from the Warhol's collection. He uses photographic prints, magazine clippings, drawings and film clips to reveal Warhol, the man behind the image, through which we see Ligon himself. "Piece" speaks to unpleasant social realities. As Warhol himself said, "Who wants the truth? That's what show business is for -- to prove that it's not what you are that counts, it's what they think you are." Ligon's work speaks this truth and, in so doing, gives voice to histories, the memory of which many fear, forget or choose to ignore.
Glenn Ligon: Some Changes continues through Dec. 31. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org
Poster child: From Glenn Ligon's series Runaways (1993). Image courtesy of The Latner Family Art Collection, Toronto