Currents 81 at the St. Louis Art Museum features new works by Glenn Ligon, an exceedingly interesting artist. Ligon is a photographer, painter, sculptor and installation artist whose conceptual works engage a variety of issues, from personal histories to contemporary politics. His works, like most good conceptual art, tend to engage viewers and sometimes frustrate us into examining our own responses to touchy topics.
The works in the Currents show are no different. They take on the weighty subject of race and representation in contemporary society. Ligon's works -- he calls them "drawings" -- are medium-sized silkscreened photographic images on paper, with text overlays. The words of the text are rendered in glossy black coal dust; sometimes the dust becomes so thick it obscures or completely obliterates the photographic image.
The images come from coverage of the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Faces in the crowd are visible in one of Ligon's works, "Untitled (Speech/ Crowd #2)"; in "Untitled (Speech/Hands #1)," images of hands are barely legible. In most of the other works in the show (there are nine works total), the images are so enlarged and so obscured by text as to be unreadable. The same can be said of the textual overlay: In most of the works, it is barely legible. Viewers are clued in to its content and sources by the titles of the works. When the title includes the word "Speech," the text has been borrowed from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's speech at the Million Man March; titles including "The Fire Next Time" and "Stranger in the Village" indicate that the text has been borrowed from books by James Baldwin.
All of these works function like exercises in obscurity. One struggles to see the images; more often than not, they read like abstractions. One struggles to read the text, but even when the letters are legible, the meaning is impossible to decipher. A few odd phrases and words come through -- "a whole world is lost" and "it can be seen" and "trust of one another" are a few of the more tantalizing tidbits. Other passages directly address blacks living in a white world, but again, with only fragments available, it is difficult to reconstruct the larger ideas from which they come.
Obscurity is, of course, the point here. Ligon's works suggest that the photograph, often considered the medium of "truth," is as complicit in obscuring history as it is in reporting it. They also suggest a connection, as well as a disparity, between what can be seen as two defining moments in African-American history: the 1950s and 1960s, the era in which Baldwin was writing and the civil-rights movement was at its most volatile, and the mid-1990s, when African-Americans struggled to retain visibility and define an identity as the legatees of that earlier struggle.
Form and content create a continuum in Ligon's series, like two sides of a single Möbius strip. In formal terms, the works are predominantly black. The black silkscreen ink and the black coal dust are sublimely beautiful, but they are so dense and so dark that they swallow up any possibility of lucid imagery or concrete textuality. Blackness is the subject of the work also -- how it is seen, how it is represented and the fact that clear truths are awfully hard to come by in any consideration of the black experience in this society.
Ligon's works are masterful in their ability to sum up a host of questions that need to be re-examined in regard to race: questions of visibility; of color itself; of history made and history obscured; and of images, and how they make and distort those histories. The works are to be commended for organizing all of these questions into objects that are profoundly beautiful and ambiguous at once. But here lies also the possibility of critique. These works perform what has become a frustratingly familiar move in contemporary art and contemporary culture in general: They "ask more questions than they answer." Is that a necessarily a good thing?
Recently, it's become fashionable to laud anything -- art, literature, a television report -- that "asks more questions than it answers." It's as if leaving a topic open-ended were an achievement in and of itself because it forces the audience to take up the task of discussion and, theoretically, to do the dirty work of drawing conclusions. Obviously discussion is a good thing, but it's the conclusions that more often than not just don't get drawn. Our culture is flummoxed by its unwillingness to commit to anything, to draw hard lessons from history or to pin down concrete causes of problems. It appears to be so much easier, for example, to write off social inequities as the results of phenomena far too manifold and far too tangled to ever be sorted out. Solution? More discussion.
This symptom very much characterizes discussions of race in contemporary culture. Indeed, the Million Man March itself serves as a symbol for the ambivalence of the state of these discussions. Ligon was drawn to the Million Man March for just these reasons -- he speaks about this in an interview printed in the Currents 81 gallery guide. As Ligon explains, the march emphasized male responsibility, black solidarity and self-reliance. It was meant to heighten the visibility of black men as a social force in this country. Visibility was certainly accomplished, at least temporarily, but what was achieved beyond this? The event carried with it no practical plan of political action. It emphasized self-reliance at the expense of critiques of actual policies that produce social inequality in the first place.
Ligon's pieces take up questions of the ineffectuality of the Million Man March and also the historical representation of it. They place the march within the context of civil-rights history by evoking the words of James Baldwin. No conclusions are drawn; no clear lessons are to be learned by this exercise. Instead, Ligon willfully obscures all of the pieces of his puzzle so as to enact ambivalence and obscurity. No amount of squinting will give you a clear image in his works or an understanding (or even an identification) of the texts he is borrowing.
His work is akin to the "more discussion" solution to the problem. All the pieces, all the information, are in place, but Ligon makes it impossible to use any of it to come to any decision about the matter. This critique is not meant to suggest that Ligon's works simply enact the same kind of ambivalence that plagued the Million Man March itself. But it is meant to point out that conceptual art of this variety runs the risk of simply posing questions -- and rather benign ones, at that -- rather than delineating history so that some kind of concrete response naturally emerges in viewers.
Ligon is not alone in this. This series of works hovers in the same stratosphere as work by Jenny Holzer and Lorna Simpson -- conceptual artists who concentrate on language and discourses of authority and do so with visually appealing but intellectually gentle gestures. In terms of art, of course, this is very good company. But after a while, one longs for a good game of conceptual hard ball, the kind of thing you find with Hans Haacke or Kara Walker. Ligon can manage it -- he has done it in earlier works. This series, however, though visually beautiful, only partly rises to the occasion.