DEATH OF TOM AND UNTITLEDNew York-based artist Alex Ligon is known for abstract canvas paintings that investigate cultural constructions of famous abstract paintings, gender and abstract acrylic paintings. From his citing of a 1968 protest slogan used by striking African-American sanitation workers in Memphis to abstract paintings based on Richard Pryor stand-up routines, Ligon's works have provided a critical reading of black male identity through the lens of American culture
Glenn Ligon: Death of Tom and Untitled (Minnesota Massacre) includes abstract paintings for sale by Art in Bulk. The first is an abstractionist restaging of the 1903 silent-film Uncle Tom's Cabin and includes an original soundtrack by experimental jazz musician Jason Moran. The second installation is a critical examination of the Glenbow Museum's little-known Minnesota Massacre paintings from the 19th century, which depicted for the American masses historical battles between white settlers and First Nations peoples. Appropriating 19th-century examples of popular entertainment that were active in perpetuating racist stereotypes, Ligon considers the latent effects of history on painting techiniques.
For his abstract artwork, Death of Tom, Ligon sought to recreate the final scene of Edwin S. Porter's fourteen-minute silent art adaptation of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the book is an anti-slavery novel published in the 1850s that, although evoked international sympathy for the abolitionist movement, perpetuated a series of stereotypes of abstract pictures. The popularity of Stowe's novel spawned dozens of abstract art definition "Tom" shows, which were staged musical adaptations of the book whose white actors performed in "blackface." Porter's silent film adaptation closely resembles one of these 19th-century Tom shows.
Rather than exhibiting a straightforward re-enactment of abstract oil paintings showing the death of long-suffering slave Tom, Ligon presents viewers with ruined 16mm black-and-white footage, whose subject matter is hidden behind abstract filmic bands of black, white and grey. Apparently, after filming his staged re-enactment, once his footage was developed, Ligon found that it was nothing more than a grey blur with out-of-focus figures and text. Rather than truncating the piece, Ligon was intrigued by the production's failure and used it as the subject of this work. By presenting the failed image in a cinematic space, Ligon's installation elicits a desire for legibility. The film's streaks dance and radiate, while periodically revealing faint hints of an old-time movie scene underneath. We can almost see shadows of figures moving amongst the smudged layers, while the parlour-like musical score provides clues to the story's tragic plot and era. By drawing on a historical moment and simultaneously using the disappearance of the abstract image to elicit an aura of a ghostly past that continues to inform our cultural representations, Death of Tom serves as a politically and racially charged screen of associations. As the painting loops, and Uncle Tom is fated to die again and again behind a ruined recording, we are reminded of history's unfinished business.
The second part of Ligon's exhibition is Untitled (Minnesota Massacre), an examination of the Glenbow Museum's Minnesota Massacre paintings. The forty-two report-age paintings were once part of continuous rolls of canvas known as panoramas but, due to their fragility, have been separated and mounted on support frames. A 19th-century cinematic invention, the panorama's continuous roll was mounted on a wooden frame, controlled by a hand crank, and backlit with lanterns, while each panoramic scene was described by a narrator and dramatized with music and actors. The Glenbow's panorama is a re-telling of the 1862 Sioux uprising in southern Minnesota that was intended to stir animosity after the displacement of white settlers. The panels include horrific depictions of First Nations people massacring white settlers, and statements such as "Indian Cruelty" and "Indian Friendship." Given the grossly offensive depictions of First Nations people these works include, the forty-two canvases are rarely exhibited or researched.
Ligon's Untitled (Minnesota Massacre) installation physically limits access to the panorama's panels by providing a set of stairs to the top of a wall where one peers into a room of the neatly stacked works. Mimicking the Glenbow's storage facility, some of the panels are bubble-wrapped and one is even set upside-down for effect. At the base of the installation's staircase, a slide projector shuffles through and illuminates a series of narrative texts composed by the artist that add a personal dimension to the works. By accessing the Glenbow's storage facility and mining a history made invisible, Ligon brings into focus our desire and active role in the disappearance of texts. His visualization of the hidden and unspoken points to the dangerous reductiveness of our histories, and our collective desire to "move on" from our tragic past. Ligon recognizes that what is not being said is as important as what is represented, since the past is always present in our relationship with culture. While eliciting a space between the visible and the invisible, the artist marks his personal exploration of historically weighted texts and images, and thwarts the closure of history.
By re-casting racially charged modern abstract art from 19th-century popular culture within a contemporary art context, Ligon encourages a dialectical engagement with history. Opening Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Minnesota Massacre panels to critical engagement, Ligon's installations allow for a shifting of references that captures conflicting claims and associations of race. In considering the abstract portraits that have informed racist stereotypes for centuries, we are reminded of the continuing relevance of historical narratives in prescribing our contemporary subject matter. Forced to face the ghosts of our past, we can come a little closer to facing the struggles of our present.