It is perhaps telling that the first piece in the exhibition Glenn Ligon: AMERICA, the most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work to date, is not one of the text-based paintings for which he is best known, but “Hands” (1996), a massive canvas tacked to the wall of the exhibition’s entrance with pushpins, bearing the image of outstretched palms against a black background. Drawn from a mass-media photograph of Benjamin Chavis and Louis Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March, enlarged to the point of degradation and then screenprinted, what appears here is a copy of a copy of a copy, an image that can no longer articulate what it once represented.
In choosing a piece that deviates from what is considered to be Ligon’s signature style, the curators emphasize that his practice extends beyond language-based conceptualism. However, in spite of its lack of text, “Hands” encapsulates many of the themes that run throughout all of the artist’s work — the instability of the sign, repetition and recirculation, reference and trace — but also ambivalence and ambiguity: the Million Man March, which took place in Washington, DC, was intended to redefine the popular conception of the black male in American society, to counter the stereotypes with a display of social responsibility and civic engagement. Indeed, the event was explicitly designed with symbolic images in mind: Farrakhan and others aimed to insert a new idea into the nation’s collective imagination, but also to create a gripping scene that could be captured and circulated by the media. However, the image of black America put forward by the March included neither black women nor gay men; despite its message of unity, the event was just as much an act of exclusion.
It is precisely these kinds of contradictions and inconsistencies that Ligon’s work explores, highlighted in “Hands,” and other works from the same series displayed elsewhere in the exhibition, through formal obfuscation. Farrakhan’s symbolic photo-op loses its specificity in Ligon’s treatment; we see not a demonstration of individuals asserting a political message, but grainy, grey hands hovering in space.
The exhibition, which encompasses approximately one hundred works spanning roughly three decades, is primarily organized chronologically, beginning with his student work from the mid-1980s and ending with pieces from the past decade. This format provides a thorough survey of Ligon’s career and his oeuvre as a whole, allowing us to see which elements he abandoned — the Abstract Expressionist-influenced gestural painting of his early work, for instance — and which have recurred throughout. It is hard to fault the presentation of the work, which is spaciously and logically installed, encouraging viewers to spend time with each piece and to consider the subtle variations between apparently similar ones, though the career-trajectory model, with most series isolated in their own individual galleries, potentially limits the possibility for close consideration of work from different periods. The choice to include Ligon’s student work, mostly from his time at the Whitney Independent Study Program, seems to emphasize a narrative of Ligon’s career as one of increasingly conceptual concerns, though his obvious interest in specific materials and processes seems to be at odds with such an account. It also positions the institution itself as pivotal to his artistic development.
Failure to Communicate
Though it is virtually impossible to discuss Ligon’s work without recourse to questions of race, identity and alterity, the exhibition also offers an opportunity to reconsider the discourses of identity politics and the artist’s relation to them. Discussions of the work often center around the artist’s biography, positioning it as a direct reflection of his experiences as a gay black man; however, a closer examination makes clear that he is equally concerned with the inadequacy of forms of representation. As he stated in a 2001 interview in Art Journal, “Cultural translation, like any other translation, is always involved with loss, the untranslatable, excess meanings, the indecipherable. Given the cultural context the literature and photos I am using comes out of, the demands on those texts and images, I am interested in when they fail to communicate, the space that is opened up by not communicating.”
This opportunity to reexamine his work in a new context is particularly enlightening with regard to his work from the early 1990s, the heyday of identity politics in the art world. “Notes on the Margin of the Black Book” (1991-93), originally shown at the Whitney’s infamous 1993 “multicultural” Biennial, is not just concerned with probing the depiction of the black male body and its objectification, as many commentators initially suggested, but also of capturing the various kinds of responses and reactions to, and the myriad opinions and interpretations of, a given set of images. The work is comprised of an installation of every page of Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1988 publication Black Book, a book of photographs of eroticized black male nudes, paired with captions added by Ligon bearing quotations by figures ranging from art historian David Joselit, bell hooks, and Judith Butler to patrons at gay bars and religious conservatives. Viewed in conjunction with Ligon’s entire body of work rather than the politically-charged environment of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, the artist’s ambivalence toward the material becomes apparent: rather than offering a didactic message, he neither condemns the photographs as fundamentally racist, nor does he defend them from criticism. Instead, “Notes on the Margin of the Black Book” demonstrates that images can be both attractive and repulsive, the object of simultaneous desire and disdain; here, both text and image fail to communicate a coherent message or to command a unified response.
Though identity politics offered a necessary corrective in its insistence on acknowledging race, class, gender and sexual orientation within the cultural sphere, it also often threatened to reduce an artist’s work to a statement on his or her own marginality, subsuming a discussion of the art itself into one exclusively concerned with identity. Race, sexuality, and gender are not irrelevant to Ligon’s work, nor is his status as a man who is gay and black, but this is hardly the work’s sole content. Instead, these elements often seem to serve as a means of probing the ways in which we organize the world. By disrupting the means of representation, whether pictorial or linguistic, Ligon calls attention to them, forcing us to consider how they operate.
In his signature text-based “Door” paintings, bits of text appropriated from various sources — Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Genet, Ice Cube, Jesse Jackson — are repeatedly stenciled in thick, black oil stick on white wooden doors, becoming increasingly illegible as the text begins to accumulate until the words become muddy smears; the movement from clarity at the top of each column toward disorder at the bottom seems to allude to the ways in which what appears to be a simple statement is in fact tangled in a complex web of associations. In isolating fragments from longer texts — “I found my voice, I lost my voice,” “I’m turning into a specter before your very eyes and I’m going to haunt you,” “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” — with no suggestion of their original contexts, Ligon transforms language into a kind of abstraction, repeating the text until it is effaced by its own proliferation.
Placed together in a single gallery, the paintings create a kind of textual cacophony that is echoed in a nearby room featuring a Fluxus-tinged display of four cubic shipping crates placed on the floor, each emitting different audio recordings: the recitation of a slavery narrative, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and KRS-ONE’s “Sound of Da Police.”
The crates, a nod to Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped from slavery in 1849 by mailing himself from Virginia to Philadelphia in a wooden box, are accompanied by two series of prints, Narratives and Runaways, which adopt the form and language of the slave narratives published throughout the nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries and of posters describing runaway slaves, respectively, with Ligon positioning himself as the subject of each. The installation, collectively known as “To Disembark” (1993), a reference to the 1981 poetry collection of the same name by former poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, herself the daughter of a runaway slave, draws attention to the legacy of slavery in America, invoking two centuries of history through the combination of nineteenth century narratives with the politicized music of the twentieth.
However, it also points to the ways in which identity is socially and linguistically constructed: for Runaways, Ligon invited friends to describe him physically, as if he were missing. Each poster bears a different person’s report, cataloguing his physical characteristics: “Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5’8”, very short hair cut, nearly completely shaved, stocky build, 155-165 lbs., medium complexion … Very articulate, seemingly well-educated, does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you,” “Ran away, Glenn, a black man – early 30’s, very short cropped hair, small oval wire-rimmed glasses … He has a sweet voice, is quiet. Appears somewhat timid.” The results are less a portrait of the artist than a testament to the nebulous nature of the task at hand: “Glenn,” as the subject of each account, is a kind of shifting signifier distinct from the actual person described, a nullity upon which various identities or impressions might be projected.
Historical consciousness is similarly explored, though perhaps less successfully, in a gallery dedicated to Coloring, a series executed by the artist during a residency at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2000. Working with local children, Ligon gave them images appropriated from coloring books from the 1960s and 1970s intended for black children, featuring figures such as Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman whose significance presumably would have been immediately understood by the children for whom they were originally intended.
However, Ligon found that these icons were no longer so widely familiar: without an historical awareness of these figures and their roles, the children felt free to depict them in any way they wanted — for instance, a white-faced Malcolm X wearing clownish makeup, enlarged by Ligon to epic proportions (pictured above left). As the artist noted in a statement for his Walker exhibition, “I [love] children’s drawings because kids’ relationship to culture, language, and identity is not yet fixed. They haven’t yet ingested all the rules and prohibitions that adults have, so there is no one way that things have to be in their drawings.”
Elsewhere in the exhibition, the text paintings recur in various guises: one room features rarely-exhibited paintings based on Richard Pryor’s bawdy stand-up comedy routines, rendered in various shades of blinding neon, with the illegible smudges of the “door” paintings replaced with the perceptual difficulties of reading, for instance, electric blue text on a bright red background. The coarse language of Pryor’s routines (“I remember when black wasn’t beautiful. Black men come through the neighborhood saying ‘Black is beautiful! Africa is your home! Be proud to be black!’ My parents go ‘That nigger crazy.’”) startling both because of its unexpected presence in the space of the museum and the use of such loaded terms is echoed in the lurid colors of the paintings themselves, which seem to intentionally abandon notions of good taste or refinement.
By contrast, another recent incarnation of the text painting takes the form of a textured monochrome field, with the canvas covered in a layer of coal dust. Drawing on James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village,” which describes the author’s time in a remote Swiss village in which he was the only black man, and, for many of the residents, the first they’d ever encountered, most of the paintings appear entirely black, transforming the act of reading into an undertaking that is both physically and intellectually demanding: it is only upon moving around the canvases and viewing them from various angles that words begin to emerge. Ligon refuses the viewer any possibility of reading the text in a straightforward, linear manner, instead creating a situation in which each person’s experience of it is necessarily distinct, guided by the particularities of his or her own body and its movements through the gallery space.
The last room in the exhibition presents yet another development in Ligon’s relationship to text in the form of three wall-mounted neon signs bearing the word “AMERICA” in capital letters (above left). The artist offers an interesting take on what has become a tired contemporary trope, undermining the neon’s typical function by painting the tubes with black paint or turning them toward the wall. One, titled “Rückenfigur” (2009), refers to the pictorial device common in Romantic painting, particularly associated with the work of Caspar David Friedrich, in which an artist includes a figure seen from behind in the painting with whom the viewer might identify, imagining him or herself contemplating the landscape from the painted figure’s vantage point.
In his invocation of the term, Ligon complicates the relationship between work and viewer: is it the viewer who occupies the rückenfigur role, facing the landscape of America symbolized by a malfunctioning neon sign, or instead the sign itself, which looks out onto the reality of the nation? The signs both conclude the exhibition and repeat its subtitle, simultaneously probing the idea of “America” as an unwieldy construct and framing his examinations of race, gender and sexuality as universal concerns rather than marginal ones.
Glenn Ligon: AMERICA is on display at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue) through June 5, 2011.