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New York City


A solo show at the Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea, What We Said the Last Time is made up of seventeen large photo-prints of Glenn Ligon’s annotated “Stranger in the Village (1953),” a seminal essay written by American novelist and activist, James Baldwin. Baldwin, taking from an experience of alienation in Switzerland, discusses the construction of black identity having roots in colonialism. Stained with black oil paint and Ligon’s fingerprints, the photos allude to a series the artist began in 1997, “Stranger,” also a display of text-based works. What We Said the Last Time shows an accumulation of time and displays Ligon’s relationship to Baldwin’s essay as a primary source for artistic influence.

Born in Bronx, New York in 1960, Glenn Ligon uses various mediums like film, installation, painting, and photography to develop his autobiographical work on race, sexuality, language, and history. Coming from a generation of artists like Lorna Simpson, Gary Simmons, and Marrie Cae Weems, Ligon utilizes text and photography as alternative means to articulate a narrative experience. He graduated from Wesleyan University with a BFA in 1982 and participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1985. Since then, Ligon’s work has appeared continuously in the Whitney context through solo exhibitions, group exhibitions like Thelma Golden’s exquisite and radical show, “Black Male,” and is currently displayed in the Whitney's permanent collection. With his formal training and reputation, Ligon’s pieces persist as ever changing yet relevant and novel like a history of the present.

In What We Said the Last Time, Ligon renders the process of intertextuality as it relates to his own navigation with identity and the articulation of a painterly medium. Using Baldwin’s text so explicitly and presenting it intimately, Ligon creates pages in which his experience engages with those that precede him. The question of time as it relates to cultural change is pressing. On certain pages, the annotations show a passage of time as Ligon alternates between using a pen and pencil. The annotations themselves inform viewers the statements that Ligon resonates with and inadvertently communicating which of Baldwin’s meditations he does not identify with. Similarly, some pages are stained minimally where others are nearly legible.

That Baldwin’s text discusses black male identity as a construction of white imagination, Ligon’s work is a reconstruction of his identity from a history of misrepresentation. While this notion implicates white persons, a closer reading suggests a politicization of internal conflicts within black communities, presumably on masculinity and sexuality. What We Said the Last Time is an intimate look at not only Baldwin’s influence on Ligon but also Ligon’s experiences separate from Baldwin due to contextual factors like the passing of time. Together, the two artists render a community where the notion of belonging through difference challenges the oversimplification of black masculinity.

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Tiffany Liu, April 2016, NYC.