I was thinking about how fragile neon is and, by extension, how fragile words are, how they can be made to disappear, which is a central tension or metaphor in my work. The PEN auction is about celebrating the resilience of words in the face of attempts to erase them.
Featuring blacked-out images, Neon is a supreme example of the artist’s signature manipulation of text and love of gesture, and demonstrates the artist’s deftness in applying these techniques to works in media besides painting. Neon is based on Luhring Augustine’s 2012 exhibition catalogue of the same name, which was released in tandem with the gallery’s show of neon sculptures created by the artist since 2005. In the present work, Ligon has taken a marker and blackened out portions of the illustrated neon works, a practice that recalls his layered paintings of text, appropriated from literary sources, that ride the razor’s edge between legibility and obscurity with built-up surfaces of oilstick, acrylic and coal dust.
Executed in 2014, Neon operates under Ligon’s longstanding desire “to make language into a physical thing, something that has real weight and force to it” (G. Ligon, quoted in R. Smith, “Lack of Location Is My Location,” New York Times, 16 June 1991, p. 27). Like the subtle nuances of language, each page in Neon features a unique style of drawing: some pages have neat, censor-like rectangles placed over the illustrated sculptures, some have more gestural curls scrawled over both the neons and the surrounding space, and on others Ligon has traced the original lettering of the neon, leaving the original text still legible.
Ligon largely works with found sources, and Neon underscores his continuing devotion to this strategy. Using a marker, Ligon’s additions to the text consist of inky blocks, loops and swirls that he scribbles over the images, but in so doing he masterfully repositions the resulting images outside of their original context, and opens them up to new meaning. With each distorted image, Ligon underscores the fact that language is malleable, and that words can be used to cover up or hide as well as convey truth. As such, Neon sits squarely within the canon of Ligon’s overarching effort to, thus bringing a collective view to identity and the politics of race and sex.
Glenn Ligon (1960), Neon. Signed and dated “Glenn Ligon 2014” (on the inside front cover) ink on printed book 11 3/8 x 11 3/8 x 1/2 in. Published in 2012 and executed in 2014.