Glenn Ligon
I Am A Man
Wayne Baerwaldt + Thelma Golden, February 11, 2008
Glenn Ligon_Portrait
Glenn Ligon_Portrait
His line, the primary motion to be observed, is an inconsistent, hand-wrought stenciled text in oilstick: inconsistent in that it breaks down and becomes inceasingly obscure or less visible as it is repeated, line by line, from the top to the bottom of the support surface, suspended against the generally monochromatic backgrounds. His formal restraint and tight emotional control give way on occasion (e.g., in the anti patterning, hallucinatory Richard Pryor joke paintings) to multiple shapes. During the execution of each work, as the recurring stenciled letters/words slowly start to group and to touch each other, populating more and more of the compositions, their meaning is transformed. On some sections of the canvas, letters and layered paint overlap and the result is more constructed and more painterly.

The stenciled forms achieve a certain critical mass -a thought pattern of familiarity - as sedimentation, sliding, displacement, and convulsion successively colonize the same territory. Like overlaid spirals of meaning, they are less iconic than intimate: bunched markers of the passage of time that seal each painting as a capsule, with and without metaphors (as in the shiny, resilient coal dust), signs, or symbols of something else. The condensed weaving of forms across a broad background of muted grey or black establishes a sense of place, much like Jean Tinguely’s curlicue leitmotifs through and across a page. Ligon’s paintings suggest a difficult, participatory reading that sets up a one-to-one relationship between artist and reader.

Glenn Ligon_We're Black and Strong, 1996
Glenn Ligon_We're Black and Strong, 1996
They are further complicated by their non-linearity: the paintings must be viewed like a patchwork, a circuitous rendering of human experience mapped against evolving cultural constraints and the reader’s life experiences, and perhaps also in relation to other media. The twists and turns of a critical and contemporary revisioning process, based on a fundamental change in the viewer’s perception, open up the curatorial premise for the exhibition, offering other entry points for Ligon’s oeuvre. One may navigate the paintings while speculating that the painting process consists of accumulated changes in perception.

His is an investigation that transfers the representation of perception and the meaning from other media back into his involvement with painting. Ligon thereby redefines the rhetoric of painting, not only in relation to contested concepts of black culture and impurities in artmaking (for example, his chance addition of coal dust to paint), but also with regard to the formal concerns of painting. The works in Glenn Ligon : Some Changes confront a complex and often contradictory relationship with dominant modernist paradigms for seeing, and the artist’s vocabulary for painting and mixed-media work alike. Ligon’s self-imposed parameters for interpreting his visual languaging - as an extended action - are admirable in their idealism.

Glenn Ligon_Portrait
Glenn Ligon_Portrait
Ligon is quick to establish guidelines for his visual vocabulary and his technique when he states, “There is always that push/pull in the work, of the desire for legibility and disappearance of the text”.2 His technique is obviously highly self-referential: a technique that magnifies, animates, avoids, removes, reveals and extends the self-referential. If the artist’s parameters for technique are accepted, then what is it that defines Ligon’s evolving vocabulary - a vocabulary that investigates space and politics between the legible and the invisible self ?

What about the rhetoric of images : the specific temporal, topical, personal, and socio-political conditions that shape the work? How are Ligon’s vocabulary, his techniques, and his concerns, reworked over time, from one medium to another? These are some of the questions that inform the curatorial directions of Glenn Ligon : Some Changes. Catalog essayists Huey Copeland and Darby English interpret the development of Ligon’s oeuvre as a continuum of public and private constructions of identity. Ligon’s work reflects a performative investigation of appearances, and the gaze that links disparate appearances to form a critical representation of reality.

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