Glenn Ligon’s childhood love of literature evolved into a fascination with the political and social uses of language, which informs much of his current work. Ligon’s paintings and prints give weight and force to the written word as they contemplate issues about the formation and perception of identity and race. Ligon is perhaps best known for paintings that feature carefully selected phrases taken from literary sources such as Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Mary Shelley, and Jean Genet. As in White #3, 1993, evocative quotes are hand stenciled onto the canvas or printing plate repeatedly, yielding surfaces comprised of line after line of the chosen words, some legible and others less so.
Ligon’s Untitled: Four Etchings, 1992, highlights texts by Zora Neale Hurston and Ellison. The phrase, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” was adapted from Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” Ligon’s first works of repeating sentences featured quotes by Hurston. Ligon states: “They are meaningful in that they talk about the idea of race as a concept that is structured by context rather than by essence.” The text becomes blotched and obscured with black ink as it progresses line by line down the surface of the work, ironically demonstrating the meaning of Hurston’s words. Ligon’s manipulations of the text navigate the differences between seeing and reading, and the reliability of the ways in which people see and read each other.