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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.

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