Glenn Ligon Colored
by Roberta Smith

Published in The New York Times, May 11, 2001

Periodically, Glenn Ligon seems to rebel against the austere format of his best-known work, as if to imply that making angry yet seductive black-on-black and occasional black-on-white paintings, densely patterned with the words of black writers, can have its limits.

For a change of pace, he has done photography-based works that address gay identity, using family snapshots and male pornography in one case and the work of Robert Mapplethorpe in another. But now he has made a riskier move, sticking to painting while radically changing his style, with results that are both flawed and provocative.

Formally, his latest series cuts loose, introducing bright color, legible images and animated marks in a single swoop. Where Mr. Ligon's text paintings were restrained and brooding, these are noisy and contentious.

They begin with images and words, much enlarged and sometimes mixed together, from black-themed coloring books of the 1970's. Heroes like Malcolm X, George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman alternate with wholesome teenagers with Afros. There are also pages from children's primers; in one, C is shown to stand for cool, cat, cornbread, and cash.

To these images Mr. Ligon adds color, in all senses of the word, including life, personality and skin. Vehemently scribbled or carefully painted, the colors subvert the images' innocent progressiveness with childlike feelings of their own. The markings were inspired by a project that Mr. Ligon created for a day care center in St. Paul. They communicate the frustrations and rage that racial prejudice can cause in its victims, or, alternatively, suggest that all ideas about difference are essentially instilled by the social environment.

In one work, Malcom X, Frederick Douglass and a bubble-blowing boy are all painted as clowns, at once benign and saintlike; in another, the same images are violently scribbled out. When the image of a black woman in a commencement cap and gown is marked over, it seems that Mr. Ligon is mimicking a black child's feels that college isn't an option. These works show Mr. Ligon trying to align himself more emphatically with younger, deliberately politically incorrect artists like Kara Walker. And they come up against the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and in a purely pictorial sense, suffer by comparison. But Mr. Ligon's work has always been a form of quotation that invites comparison. In one work, a coloring book image of Tubman is surrounded with a bright mosaiclike pattern reminiscent of the work of the black abstract painter Alma Thomas.

One of Mr. Ligon's goals is to charge familiar forms and conventions, like Modernist abstraction or Pop Art appropriation, with new meanings. Whatever their debts or deliberate allusions, his new paintings are full of pleasures, riddles and moving parts that shift the viewer's mind all over the psychic landscape of American history, life and visual culture. It will be interesting to see if they are a momentary break or a new direction.  

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