Perspective | A painting that wants to frustrate you


This painting, so like a weathered tombstone, is not difficult to see, but very difficult to read.

“White #15” by Glenn Ligon is painted, but also written. Starting at the top left and ending at the bottom right, ligon used a plastic letter stencil and an oily paint stick to stick the stencil words onto the canvas letter by letter. He repeated the process until the letters became so dark and dense that our desire to read them becomes frustrated.

Even if I magnify a cell phone photo I took of this painting, which is with the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Conn., I can only discern fragments of sentences: “invisibility of whiteness,” for example, and “it seemed like a fascinating paradox.” But I find myself drawn to the oily, matte, and glossy textures, the pattern created by the rows of black-on-black font, and the strangely passive-aggressive intensity of the work.

Born in New York in 1960, Ligon is a cerebral artist who nevertheless loves the materiality of paint. He is known for pitching familiar and often timeless-looking lyrics – Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, “invisible man‘, for example, or James Baldwin’s 1953 essay ‘Stranger in the village” – in an immediate, physical present where their meanings become increasingly elusive.

The text at the bottom of this work, which is part of a series, is from ‘Invisible Man’. But the words above it are from “White: Essays on Race and Culture”, a 1997 book by Richard Dyer. Dyer wrote his book believing that if white people are not seen in racial terms, they “function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we [White people] are just people.”

Obviously, there is power to be seen as the norm, which can be seen as the power of invisibility. Like Ligon itself once said (Dyer paraphrase): “Things that seem normal are very hard to see, but … things that seem special or different seem obvious.”

I don’t know why Ligon presents us with lyrics that seem contradictory (Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is about the invisibility of a black man, while Dyer writes about the invisibility of Whiteness). But I am drawn to the contradiction and to my desire to resolve it. By making me struggle to read the words he has so laboriously applied, Ligon makes labor and struggle part of the meaning of the work.

But it also obscures the meaning itself—perhaps removing some of the gloss from what Baldwin called “the jewel” of my “naivety” in the process. After all, isn’t it naive to think that works of art can be ‘solved’, as if they were equations or riddles?

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