A Journey Through Thacher: Making Sense of Glenn Ligon

Artist Glenn Ligon’s work is up on display at the Thacher Gallery in Gleeson Library. It will remain until February 27th, and like many other students I found myself wondering why this mattered at all.

The artwork itself isn’t immediately eye-catching. There are no huge canvases or pretty colors. But upon closer inspection, and with the guidance of one of the exhibition’s organizers, philosophy Professor Ronald Sundstrom, I learned of my mistake. Ligon’s art has the distinct ability of being profound without necessarily pleasing aesthetically– though in many ways it does please. Glenn Ligon is a conceptual artist who is interested in questions of identity, race, and history. The exhibition at Thacher Gallery includes four of his stencil pieces, nine slave narratives, and numerous runaway slave prints. The notion of identity lies heavy on the minds of many of us. We should feel empowered by who we are, but very often that is clouded by sentiments of oppression and anger. Glenn Ligon uses his art to approach some of these themes.

There is not a definitive translation or meaning to Ligon’s work. Professor Sundstrom took me through the Thacher show. “The point, as I interpret it,” he said as he walked me into the exhibit, “is that it interrupts your assumptions.” Ligon’s slave-missing posters embody Sundstrom’s point. I first read the missing slave poster half-expecting to already know the text, “5”11 black slave with good build etc,” but I was surprised to find the poster mentioned very personal qualities, including the fact that the missing “slave,” the artist himself in this instance, was gay. Professor Sundstrom looked at me, eagerly awaiting my reaction, and I had nothing to say except that I hadn’t expected that. “Exactly,” he responded in satisfaction, and took me over to another Ligon piece. The artwork itself is often submerged in humorous overtones, and Professor Sundstrom made a point to emphasize this during the tour. The hilarity of Ligon’s work serves many different purposes, but what struck me was the way it eased the viewer into the serious themes he was addressing. Ligon stands on no pedestal, and does more suggesting than he does preaching.

By doing so, he makes his work more available and less intimidating to the audience. Professor Sundstrom shares a lot of these characteristics. He speaks in an easy manner that doesn’t condescend, which in turn granted me more confidence when I was discussing the artwork with him. I never felt like I was being told something, but rather directed towards fascinating questions, questions I would have never considered without the impressive combination of Ligon’s work and Sundstrom’s thoughtful shepherding.

Professor Sundstrom, who studies and writes about race and philosophy, invited fellow philosopher Paul Taylor, from Penn State, to give a talk about Ligon’s work. Taylor discussed the artwork,and the themes they approach, with a full house of attendees. Roughly half of the audience consisted of students, but many other thinkers and professionals attended the event as well. Taylor started off by announcing that Glenn Ligon is a problem, it is “the nature of his work,” he says. Ligon disrupts the way we categorize and view things. As humans, we instinctively seek to view the world with clarity. We like to assign people clearly defined social identities, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Paul Taylor argues that by “taking things we’re used to seeing a certain way and tweaking them,” Ligon upset our assuming perspectives. In that respect, Glenn Ligon is in fact a problem. But by being “committed to difficulty,” as art critic Darby English describes him, Ligon challenges our broad categorizations.

In an everyday world where concepts of racial identity are hushed and avoided, it was refreshing to see these essential questions surface at such a public forum. And in my  amateur opinion, I see that as one of the main point of Ligon’s artwork; to continue the dialogue, in spite of its often frustrating indirection.

The exhibit will continue through February 27.

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