Language is slippery. For the past decade Glenn Ligon has found room to work in the space in-between what language does and what it is supposed to do. Surely it is uncomfortable to admit that this space exists. That is particularly true for those of us who move letters around for a living and take comfort in disingenuously assuring ourselves that we are actually manipulating and delivering ideas, pure rational thought, rather than merely Times New Roman in an ambiguous configuration. Sometimes it keeps me awake at night.
When I first saw Ligon’s work, his images were composed from small, fragmentary quotations from literature authored by renowned African-American writers. They were laid out as text would be on a page starting on the top left and running line by line towards the bottom right. His choices were tightly cropped, not curt, but definitely concise. ‘I remember the very day I became colored.’ ‘I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.’ As the words were reiterated over and over they bled, they blurred, and often became unintelligible stains.
When approaching new work by Ligon in 1998, it behooves us to uncover those aspects of his practice that have remained unchanged over his decade of production. We also have the benefit of having recently witnessed a survey mounted at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art to help us keep what we remember of his numerous public outings tied to the reality of what the artist has actually made. Or perhaps this is to our detriment as our misrememberings, our inability to pin-down just the incontrovertible facts, are in fact what give many of Ligon’s work their poetry.
The most salient feature that has not changed from the first painting to this new group of works is that the voice behind Ligon’s chosen text can always be understood as issuing from multiple authors. In the case of the paintings at Artpace the texts all come from James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village.” We have Baldwin as our first suspect —he was the author, so he might still be. But we also want Ligon himself to be the author—he has chosen it, he has made Baldwin’s language lusciously physical, and even if we had read the essay in the long ago, Ligon has made the Baldwin text new and manifestly present. Also in our heart of hearts we want Ligon to be channeling Baldwin. We find comfort in believing that two gay, black men working on the cutting edge of the culture of their times should be, in some sense, an everlasting, no-longer-secret family in direct psychic communion.
But then we also have the panel that hangs on the wall before us. Anthropomorphizing and granting agency to inanimate objects is a romantic fantasy that we all do in private, so let us license ourselves to do it in public. These paintings seem to speak for themselves, as in fact many of his works have done over the last decade. The language that Ligon borrowed from Baldwin speaks of the Swiss villagers’ inability to apprehend the writer’s black face and all the unresolved, imbricated and embedded issues within European, American and African cultural and racial history that his presence surfaces. While that lack of apprehension is complex, involving multiple areas of culture and multiple viewpoints, it begins with the visual.
In that, we are all in the position of the Swiss villagers. We look at these very black paintings, but we lack the tools we need to read them easily. Like the effect of the stranger on the villagers, these paintings, whose coal dust surfaces have the glitter of a cloudless, moonless night sky, transfix us, and coerce us to baldly stare. But our eyes cannot locate the fugitive letters for long enough to decode the whole phrase. We are frustrated, struggling to understand the pocketful of disconnected letters we are left with. The dense black rectangle could be describing its own experience with viewers like us. However, we experience the frustration of our desire to comprehend and capture with the eye all that we know is there. And in that, we may begin to consider the ubiquity of misunderstandings as part and parcel of the fabric of life.
The shifting of authorship undermines whatever putative authority the author’s function still entails, so it was shock to see in San Antonio a new voice employed by our visual ventriloquist, one that was as much his own as we can imagine. If one takes a text from a source, no matter how much empathy the borrower has for the words contained, it is a found object, and as such it is available for the cruelest of dissections. Indeed if the Baldwin text were available only on Ligon’s canvases, and not also at the bookstore and library, his refusal to let the words be read would cross the line that stands between provocative and sadistic. But Ligon’s own words are legible—presented in the official text-site mode of the historic marker. We must assume that as Ligon has proved himself unwilling to present the written word without interference and interruption—something else has taken over the function of disturbing the transparent transference of ‘meaning.’
Ligon’s voice tells tales of unsuccessful, timid attempts to make contact with men in San Antonio, but the attempts are not made in act but conjured in language. Ligon perceived something in the situation but in none of the scenarios does the object of his desire do anything to confirm this. By making these stories into plaques and placing them on the sites of the (non) encounters, Ligon makes nothing that could have been something into something whose nothingness is what earned it the right to be recorded in this series. Language can be lies, and since in the act of cruising we have all fooled ourselves into thinking that brief eye-contact was something more than mere appreciation of our fashion sense or new haircut, we are without our normal tools for deciding what our attitude towards this language should be. We cannot even start with our typical first question: Fiction or Non-fiction? Clearly these recountings are both and neither.
In the space between what language is supposed to do and what it does, Ligon has identified what is neither a space of crises nor anxiety, although the potential for both is present. Rather, if we allow that the gap exists, the space can be full of possibility. Ligon, by recounting these men with little more than a brief description and a situation imbued with erotic possibility, makes this other unrealized history manifest, completed by the sympathetic reader. The artist has given you permission.
In all of Ligon’s appropriation, the theory that the readers rewrite the text as they read it is transformed from a tenet of post-modernity into a generous gift. Language fails us because it gives so much all at once and in every direction, trans-historically and cross-culturally, as long as we learn the lessons Ligon offers. It is always, already ours to do with what we will.
Bill Arning is an independent curator and critic based in New York.