Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Notes on Viewing Conceptual Art

I was strolling through the National Gallery of Art yesterday after attending the panel discussion on Photography’s function as diplomacy (very interesting, will write about this next). I came upon this piece by Glenn Ligon. The wall text only gave these details:

Glenn Ligon 
American, born 1960 
Condition Report, 2000 
iris prints with screen-printed annotations 
Gift of the Artist 

This work is exactly why I love conceptual art. I will attempt now to explain my thought process and the conclusions I reached while looking at this painting. I am not familiar with this artist or his work. And for the purposes of this discussion, I haven’t looked anything up. I am only describing what I see.

To start, Condition Report consists of two paintings both painted on the same size paper and in identical frames, suggesting a duality. It invites us to compare the two paintings. The words “I AM A MAN” are written in large black capital block letters. The word “am” is underlined. On the piece to the right there are notes scribbled on the boarder with lines directing you to marks. These notations are how a registrar usually creates a condition report for a work of art. They use a picture of the painting, sculpture, photography, or whatever the artwork is and they make notes on it just like this to indicate where there is damage on the work. The condition report is used for shipping, insurance, and in some cases pricing. On this painting there seems to be extensive damage.

Now here’s where it gets interesting, I hope you’ll agree! When I was looking at this I thought about the quintessential conceptual art pieces by Rene Magritte (1898-1967) called Ceci n’est pas une pipe, 1928-29, oil on canvas. His artwork questions the idea of representation and challenges our conception of reality (he was part of the surrealist movement, along with our boy Salvador Dali). Ceci n’est pas une pipe is a painting of a pipe, it refers to a pipe, but it is not an actual pipe. The words call attention to the paintings attempt to recreate a pipe. We say, “that is a pipe,” when we look at the painting but somewhere in our minds we understand that we cannot reach out and smoke it.

In Condition Report, Ligon’s words “I AM A MAN” are multifunctional. They are simply making a statement; they are a representation of Ligon’s thoughts and reality. He is a man. The words are written in black, which might indicate that Ligon is African American. It suggests that although he doesn’t mention his race when he states his identity, it is ever present and silently the focus.

The words also indicate that perhaps the paper is a man. Perhaps the words are labeling the paper. Like how we say "spices" or "office supplies" when organizing things. Perhaps they are labeling the object not the artist. I would argue that the condition report takes on a whole new meaning in this context. There is excessive damage noted on the painting to the right, pointing out cracks, tears, dark spots, etc. I wonder if the painting on the left is how the artist sees himself, simply as a man, without any criticism, as he is. And maybe the painting on the right is how society sees him. We point out his flaws. We think of him, as a black man, as damaged. But then, we didn’t make this painting. The artist did. I wonder if he is pointing out what others have observed in him or if he is making assumptions on what he thinks we see when we look at him. I didn’t notice the damage on the painting to the left until it was pointed out on the right. Suddenly, this work is loaded with thoughts on identity, race, and politics.

The painting got me thinking about myself and my views, judgments, and preconceptions. What if the painting said “I AM A WOMAN” and it was written in white letters? How would we read the condition report? Would it point to wrinkle, scar on right hand index finger, double chin, overbite, and left foot larger than right foot? Would it represent how I saw myself or how I think others see me? And what is the difference?

When you are walking through an art gallery I encourage you to take a few minutes to really look. What do you see? What is the artist trying to tell you? You might not be familiar with the artist or their genre of painting, sculpture, etc. but that doesn't matter. You can pick up clues from the painting itself, even if the wall text gives you nothing more than a label. There is so much more than meets the eye. Although Condition Report needed little skill to create (i.e. “I could paint that”), it isn’t about the virtuosity of the artist in a traditional sense. It is mimicking reality in a different way than the Old Master’s or Impressionists and deserves to be considered by us, the viewers.


  1. Really insightful post. It reminded me of this video:

    It's interesting that you thought the left painting was the artist's view of himself and the right was how society perceived him. After watching the video, it could quite possibly be the opposite. More often, I think, we judge ourselves more harshly than others would.



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