New York

Glenn Ligon

D'Amelio Terras

Since the days when Max Ernst’s La Femme 100 têtes spoke in psychoanalytic tongues, artists have actively pursued the implications of identification, projection, transference, and desire, unveiling in the process just how unstable and contingent any cohesive notion of the “self” really is. The unruly unconscious supplied a language—if cacophonous—with which to question conventions of subjectivity while proposing a plethora of “difference.” From the early ’70s on, then, psychoanalysis’s most adamant advocates came from the margins, using methods culled from the couch to engage the politics of gender, race, and sexuality—to reveal both the workings of the id and the cultural mechanisms conceived to quiet and conceal it.

In light of this history, perhaps it’s no surprise that Glenn Ligon, whose work has been rooted in investigations of identity for over a decade, turned his attention to the talking cure for his most recent exhibition, whose title was “Going There.” But given the artist’s near-total compulsion to speak using the voice of others (he’s previously appropriated American slave narratives, the words of James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, and newspaper photos of the Million Man March), this decision carries significant weight. His move is coupled with a shift in the last few years from the works with which he made his name—from somber black-and-white text paintings that downplay the authorial mark (or at least its “look”) to provocative canvases oozing with raucous color and expressive gesture (or at least its “look”).

One of these newer paintings—the end product of the artist having discovered a genre of “black-themed” ’70s coloring books, enlisted a group of children to color them in and picked his favorites to approximate on canvas—was included in this exhibition. The solitary painting (a rosy-cheeked rendition of Malcolm X that looks more like Ronald McDonald) functioned as a kind of raison d’être for the show’s real centerpiece: a fifty-five-minute double-channel video projection of several snippets from the artist’s analytic sessions (on one screen, his middle-age, white female therapist’s headless torso fidgets; on the other we see banal office details and the view out the window). While childhood insecurities, relationship with Mom, and early signs of gay sexuality make obligatory appearances, the story around which the video revolves is the temporary loss of Malcolm X, in Ligon’s estimation the best of the children’s book paintings, en route to an exhibition. This incident, we learn, threw Ligon into a psychic spin that left him wondering about his merits as an artist and pondering the connotations of his lifelong status as a maladjusted outsider. (Several of the artist’s elementary school end-of-year evaluations, each testifying to a young Glenn’s status as talented but touchy, are also included here.)

“I don’t want to talk about art during therapy because I’m afraid it will exhaust things,” we hear Ligon confess presciently at one point. But since this discussion was designed to be caught on video, it’s already too late. Where the artist’s earlier works managed to address subjectivity and its politics by way of elegantly conceived formal frameworks, here, unfortunately, there is only one person’s limited and limiting subjecthood as far as the eye can see (or sit through). Indeed, one is reminded of Rosalind Krauss’s famous warning, issued some thirty years ago, that video is the one medium capable of rendering narcissism into material stuff. In the case of “Going There,” talk is hardly curative but instead appears to be part of the problem.

Johanna Burton