“Ligon’s series recontextualises the phrase ‘Come out to show them’ from the testimony of one of the badly beaten Harlem Six, which Reich isolated for his 1966 work. Whilst Reich repeats the refrain on two channels that gradually become out of sync, Ligon continually superimposes the words onto the canvas to form densely layered landscapes of text. Echoing Reich’s music, the artist increases the number of silkscreen layers in each painting until the words verge on abstraction.” (M. RATNER, Glenn Ligon: Come Out, Ridinghouse 2014, http://ridinghouse.co.uk/publications/112 [accessed 12th September 2016])
“In writing [...] something is always left out, it can’t be articulated in the space of an essay. Using letters that bleed and disappear is about getting to that difficulty.” (G. LIGON, quoted in H. Drohojowska-Philp, ‘Glenn Ligon Gets Obama’s Vote,’ in LA Times, 11 December 2009)
“Text demands to be read, and perhaps the withdrawal of text, the frustration of the ability to decipher it, reflects a certain pessimism on my part about the ability and desire to communicate.” (G. LIGON, quoted in ‘Neo-Archival and Textual Modes of Production: An Interview with Glenn Ligon,’ in Art Journal, Spring 2001, p. 43)
With its layered vertical bands repetitively emblazoned with the slogan ‘come out to show them,’ Glenn Ligon’s Come Out Study #19 (2015) is a poignant example of his Come Out series. The artist creates his layered mirage through silk-screening, shifting individual screens to create intermittent sites of fluctuating densities. These undulating planes of tonality create a subtle movement heightened by the scintillating play of light and shadow. Ligon’s repetitive sequence of ‘come out to show them’ is overlaid, reduced to a muffled syntax further impeded by the vertical swathes of pigment. By rendering the text near-illegible, Ligon transforms the act of reading into an effort of understanding. The text demands attention, representing Ligon’s aim to ‘slow down reading, to present a difficulty, to present something that is not so easily consumed and clear’ (G. Ligon, quoted by C. Berwick, ‘Stranger in America: Glenn Ligon’, Art in America, May 2011, n.p.).
The work explores themes of black oppression, memorialising the legacy of the Harlem Six. The event, central to the 1964 Harlem riots, occurred following the implementation of new laws that granted police officers the right to arbitrarily ‘stop and frisk’ citizens. The law disproportionately targeted the black population reflecting the segregation that riddled American cities at the time. The incident developed when several black teenagers attempted to mitigate a confrontation between police officers and a group of victimized children. As a result, these teenagers were handcuffed and subjected to beating in the street. The men, Wallace Baker, Walter Thomas, Willie Craig, Ronald Felder, Robert Rice and Daniel Hamm, were later forced from their homes, subjected to further beating, and indicted following a coerced confession for the murder of a white shopkeeper. Marking a grave injustice in the history of civil rights, the Harlem Six were sentenced to life in prison.
Firmly grounded in the postmodern tradition of appropriation, Ligon’s series is a visual articulation of Steve Reich’s 1996 taped-speech composition derived from the testimony of the Harlem Six’s Daniel Hamm. In his statement Hamm recalls, ‘They like turned shifts on us, like six and twelve at a time would beat us. They beat us till I could barely walk and my back was in pain.’ In the aftermath, ‘they made us go and wash up,’ and despite the bruising ‘they didn’t want to take me to the hospital because I wasn’t bleeding. I had this big bruise on my leg from them beating me ... I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them’ (D. Hamm, quoted in M. Ratner, ‘The Come Out Notebook,’ in M. Ratner, Glenn Ligon Come Out, exh. cat., Thomas Dane Gallery, London, 2014, p. 14). Reich’s melodic composition starts with an excerpt of Hamm’s statement: ‘I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.’ This singular phrase is repeated throughout the work, increasingly manipulated as the song progresses until the sentence is rendered inaudible. Reich’s sound informs Glenn’s work — the composer’s out-of-sync crescendo of overlapping words is replicated in Ligon’s superimposed, densely layered text. In his quivering vibration of text and form, Glenn faultlessly captures what Richard Serra interprets as Reich’s ‘sound of sheer anxiety’ (R. Serra, quoted in M. Ratner ‘The Come Out Notebook, in M. Ratner, Glenn Ligon Come Out, exh. cat., Thomas Dane Gallery, London, 2014, p. 11).
The textual conceptualism that informs Ligon’s oeuvre comprehensively explores prescient themes of race and sexuality through an impressive and powerful symbolism that transmits vital and enduring meaning. In his reflection on the Come Out series Richard Serra notes, ‘I don’t recall the structure or concise logic. What I retain is the feeling of alienation and discomfort. It might seem strange, but the discomfort arises from a rethinking of form. This is what I cherish in art’ (R. Serra, quoted in M. Ratner ‘The Come Out Notebook, in M. Ratner, Glenn Ligon Come Out, exh. cat., Thomas Dane Gallery, London, 2014, p. 15)