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Art review: Glenn Ligon at Regen Projects

December 25, 2009 | 11:00 am

400.GL-Figure-#1 "Rage can only with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence," the great American writer James Baldwin observed in 1953, "and is therefore not susceptible to any arguments whatever." An African American living in a small Swiss village, where he grappled with Old World racism that illuminated the New World form he knew so well, Baldwin was carving out space to regard quotidian reality with furious anger.

For a group of 20 text-paintings at Regen Projects, New York artist Glenn Ligon has employed an excerpt of Baldwin's essay "Stranger in the Village," the last piece in his celebrated collection "Notes of a Native Son." Ligon has used the excerpt before. The new paintings were made from a silk-screen of an earlier version.

What the exact excerpt says is impossible to decipher, however, since a combination of pitch-black coal dust and smeared screen-printing obscures the words. Instead the text, tactile and coarse, flows like lava down the canvas' surface. The contradictory result is a gorgeous suite of unexpectedly elegant, even glamorous abstractions.

Ligon's works cover the spectrum, flocking the soot on canvases painted black, white and silvery gray, as well as each of the primary colors plus hot pink. Although smaller, they recall Andy Warhol's 1979 "Shadow" paintings – his first abstractions, which seem to contain hidden secrets that never will be deciphered.

If we've seen this work before, however, the show's real news is also Warholian – a short film in which the artist reenacted the final scene from Thomas Edison and Edwin S. Porter's 1903 silent movie "Uncle Tom's Cabin." One of the first American movies to tell a full narrative, the Edison-Porter collaboration adapted a racist blackface stage show familiar to audiences in its time.

The final tableau has the "noble hero," penned by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, preparing for heavenly salvation, thanks to the intervention of white Christians. Ligon's version of the filmed novel is, like the paintings, entirely abstract – a series of smudged blurs, flashes of white and ragged black shapes, all set to a piano soundtrack.

Often the flickering imagery looks like an X-ray of a human body, set in jittery motion. The cinematic struggle between black and white, dark and light, transforms social strife and moral conflict into an exquisite space for contemplation.

– Christopher Knight

Regen Projects, 9016 Santa Monica Blvd. and 633 N. Almont Drive, West Hollywood, (310) 276-5424, through Jan. 23. Closed until Jan. 2 and on Sundays and Mondays. www.regenprojects.com/

Image: "Figure #1." Image credit: From Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Glenn Ligon.

Comments () | Archives (2)

It is design, not creative art. William Wray wrote a good diagnosis of this peculiar trait of decadent times, surface over content. A finish fetish if you will. This guy has nothing to say, more interested in Baldwin as gay martyr than black activist, for the "paintings" have nothing to do with overcoming adversity, but wanting a lifestyle imposed on others, in our case now, the gay arts lifestyle taking over the virility of the hetero. Masculinity and femininty have no place in todays art "scene". This is about validating oneself, not exploring humanity.

Which Baldwin did first and formost, whether of black rage in The Fire Next Time, or discovering ones true self in Giovanni's Room, learning not to live a lie. But glossing over truth, with surface texture and over refined finish keeps from addresing the basics of who WE are. It is about self validation, and attitude, not exploration of a common humanity, of our true natures, and seeking our peace with God. As Baldwin always did. This is schlock, nicely done, but irrelevant. It is about the overwelming desire of the individual, to look into a mirror constantly, not to discover, but to admire.

Meism is dead, The age of excess over. Let it go. Time to search, to explore, to subsume the individuals desires into what binds us as one. Time to grow up. Let it go. It is time to put aside childish things, and put on the mantle of adulthood.

art collegia delenda est
Save the Watts towers, tear down the Ivories.

Glenn Ligon has enough education to understand basic design of the Andy Warhol level. The strength his work is of the metaphor of cultural repression, the weakness is the delivery method of silkscreen that anyone can be hired to do. He encapsulates the concept by taking the text of famous writers written pages, blows them up to a distorted super graphic size, and silk-screens them onto his surface of choice. Like a child with a Xerox machine copying and distorting he "creates" some nice texture effects. The coal dust touch is another symbolic tool to represent social repression of the toil in the mines for what is coal dust, but charcoal? (I hope he collects the coal from miner’s grimy skin and doesn’t use briquettes from Ralph’s.) When finished the pieces are on the wall metaphors of cultural repression that takes visual relevance by being impossible to read. Get it?
This collective guilt of the oppression of White America is rounded out with the mistrial sideshow element, the hottest form of entertainment in the 19th century. I guess some people find this profound, I think it’s smart high school level collage that is now particularly dated.
When rich people buy this art they feel smart, socially informed, and ethnically sensitive. In this case they now have a politically correct hook that seems sincere, but the best part the concept is easy to explain to their friends and makes them sound like a sage. Critics, galleries, museums do the same. It fits smoothly into marketing, investment and the promotion of the Cabal that controls the art world.


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