This past spring the Whitney Museum unveiled an exhibition called Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, which is the first comprehensive mid-career retrospective devoted to the eponymous New York-based artist.
If you're not familiar with his work, he's probably most famous for the text-based paintings that he has been doing since the 80s, which showcase words from Richard Pryor to Zora Neale Hurston. And in 2009, Obama added Ligon's Black Like Me No. 2 to the White House collection.
As I entered the show, the first thing I encountered was a massive silk screen entitled Hands. Graphic and bold, this piece is a protest representation of the Million Man March in 1995. As I walked through, I ran across silk screens of icons such as Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman, and neon tubes that said "Black and die" and "America." Sometimes a couple of words would sit in the center of the canvas, and other times they combatively repeated from top to bottom, covering the entire canvas until it was illegible. Sentences included, "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background."
Ligon's work felt confrontational in the space, always staring me down and asking me tough questions. As he states, "In some way, what we think of the self is a composite of other people's ideas of who we are, and that there's no such thing as a standard version of one's identity."
While he's obviously not a "graphic designer" by any traditional definition, Ligon's work is powerful and exceptional because he uses typography as the fundamental tool for his messaging. His successful use of words and graphic imagery to discuss race and sexual identity in America, while uncomfortable at times, is unequivocally sincere; he's not trying to manipulate us to see things his way. Instead he uses a play on words to help us uncover the truth for ourselves. The work in AMERICA is just as relevant now as it was when he made it.
Unfortunately, the exhibition is closed now in New York, but it will be traveling to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the fall of 2011.