New York

Glenn Ligon

The title of Glenn Ligon’s recently exhibited selection of drawings since 1988, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” came to him from the New Testament by way of James Baldwin. Its resonances are thus multifarious, but my surmise is that the most vivid among them is the suggestion of a juridical proceeding on the one hand and a diffidence toward (if not thoroughgoing renunciation of) the “visual” on the other.

Forbidding as that sounds, Ligon’s works on paper are more engaging than I’ve found his paintings to be. The latter are handsome, to be sure, with an aching intensity that belies their cool, correct surfaces. The problems with them are two. First, the style of the paintings—but not only their style, rather their entire artistic strategy—seems so narrowly dependent on the example of Jasper Johns, and of a fairly narrow slice of the early Johns at that. Second, where they depart from Johns in their use of actual texts rather than detached signs or symbols (flags, letters, numbers), they rely on a kind of unearned bonus of significance by straightforwardly appropriating the words of some of our best writers (not only Baldwin but also Zora Neale Hurston and, notably, Ralph Ellison). In different ways, both problems open the work to the charge of being derivative, as well as ingenuous, insufficiently antithetical toward their sources. It’s symptomatic that in the exhibition brochure Charlotta Kotik can speak of Ligon’s having moved from abstraction to text-based work as “an attempt to inject new content into the work”—as though content were something you could just get a fix of.

Ligon’s drawings do not entirely resolve these problems, but by presenting the work in a more informal, less ponderous guise, they leaven these criticisms considerably. The material density of Ligon’s complex grisaille surfaces attains a droll forlornness when wedded to the more fragile support of paper. It helps, too, that the earliest drawings are among Ligon’s best—the clarity of the impulse at its emergence encourages the hope that it might be regained. These 1988 drawings are from a series in which the texts are taken from popular guides to the interpretation of dream imagery. The source is advantageous not only because it is culturally unhallowed, eliciting more irreverence and irony than Ligon can bring to Ellison and company, but also because the drawings insert themselves into and extend an ongoing dialectic between the verbal and the visual, since the quoted “dream interpretations” are already verbal translations of visual imagery. (It also helps that some of the texts—e.g., “EUROPEAN: To see one in your sleep denotes economic slavery”—are so comically implausible, which is not necessarily to say misleading, that it’s hard to believe Ligon hasn’t really invented them.)

In the most recent work here, and by far the largest, a photomural based on a news image of the Million Man March in 1995, Ligon seems to be trying to reverse his previous strategy—effacing the given text (by removing the slogans from the banner and placards seen amid the crowds) rather than appropriating it—but, even more than before, the result continues to feel too easy and familiar, right down to the mirroring of the image to create a symmetrical composition. Ligon’s strategy of invisibility and ambiguity in the piece is extremely self-limiting, and he might have been better off taking the risk of inscribing his own messages about blackness and masculinity, about agency, anonymity, and representation, on others’ banners. The implications are there; they need something to crystallize them.

Barry Schwabsky