Much like the painting and conceptual art born out of the 1950s and 60s, Ligon ponders what it means to be a painter, questioning the possibilities of paint and the act of painting. To address these questions, Ligon deals with the surface, or, in this case the canvas. His process involves pressing tar or oilstick against a taunt surface through a plastic alphabet stencil so that the pigment in the letter space is manipulated until it is fully registered. At the start of this process, the text is clear and visible though because of the properties of the medium, dries slowly and binds to the stencil itself so that the letters and the spaces between them become obscured. As the expression of the text against the page becomes muddier, the image becomes more pictorial, more abstract, more painterly. The artist describes the process in a recent interview: "It's a very 'Johns-ian' impulse, you know? Jasper Johns and his whole thing about 'Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.' In my case it is "Take a text. Do something to it. Do something else to it" (S. Andrews, "Glenn Ligon: in Conversation," Glenn Ligon-Some Changes, exh. cat, 2005, pp. 179-181.)
Of course the writing itself is equally important to the final product. Ligon's concern with the power of language to define and marginalize provides an important analysis of American history and culture. Using a collection of cultural and historic references, Ligon digs into the complexity of the issues he addresses. In the present work, Ligon selects Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man, a text the artist first encountered in high school. For the artist, Ellison's novel was a crucial catalyst for the use of text in his work and challenged him to challenge us - the viewers - to consider our assumptions about race and society. The undecipherable breakdown of meaning visible within the shadows and darkness of the lower portion of the canvas allude to the anguish suffered by African-Americans in a mainstream culture that Ligon struggled with growing up. The criticism surrounding this particular text was personally striking to the young artist. While for Ligon Invisible Man celebrated what it meant to be Black in America, critics would claim that its depiction of Black life was detrimental to a African-American society.
An artist who is always reading, Ligon has said that he "wants to make language into a physical thing, something that has real weight and force to it" (R. Smith, "Lack of Location Is My Location,"The New York Times, June 16, 1991, p. 27.) He listens hard and close to varieties of both spoken and written language, and to the subtleties of syntax and style. Equally important, Ligon looks closely at the forms and reproduction of language, at printing processes, formating, and typefaces. The present work speaks a respectfully borrowed, first-person voice of black subjectivity while registering the denial and constant silencing of that same voice. Here, Ligon has challenged the transparency of language and text by changing the conditions of its reproduction. These changes have resulted in language that is difficult to understand and sometimes, impossible to see.