Balcony by Peter Doig; Untitled (We are the ink...) by Glenn Ligon

Made by Kim Lister

Created: November 11th, 2014


The abstract painting I observed was by Glenn Ligon.

It is black ink on an off-white canvas, apparently from block type pressed against the surface. They could also be stenciled on. It reads "We are the ink that gives the white page a meaning," over and over, in all caps. The ink spreads more near the bottom, covering the "white" background with smudges and smears. The overall effect is thus of a gradient down the page from (moderately) light and high-contrast to dark and muddled. The type is lined up in rows, left-aligned, with a jagged right margin (no words are hyphenated to cross from line to line; no kernings are adjusted to bring lines closer to the same length). Letters can be slightly out of line, off-kilter.

The content of the text makes me think of white space or negative space, of defining an object by what’s around it or what it’s not. I assume the artist means “we” to be “Black people,” but “white page” might mean either White society or some kind of vacuum in which they exist. The high contrast, the repetition, the choice of all capital letters & of a run-on statement without punctuation, all make the message seem like an insistent chant or mantra. It is blunt and rough and somewhat industrial or perhaps urban (the font seems like something one would find on metal drums or shipping containers).

The second painting I observed was Balcony, by Peter Doig.

It’s a picture of a balcony (naturally) with two hammocks, the wall of the building, a window, a wooden railing and floor, and some large-leafed palms.

It has a very focused color palette: just blue, green, white, and brown. It’s very textured, but the textures aren’t always what one would expect. I associate the shape of the leaves behind the balcony with the very smooth, shiny, reflective leaves of some succulent plants, but instead they have a fairly rough texture. If the second green hammock is, as I guess, meant to be a reflection of the other, than the texture of the wall doesn’t adequately show how reflective it is, either. It looks like wood planks, although the wavy line at the top suggests corrugated metal. The floor seems very wooden.

Most of the composition is straight lines, with only the curves of the leaves in the background and the two prominent curves of the hammocks arching across the middle of the canvas. They break up many of the areas with many parallel lines, intersecting the boards of the wall, the window, and the posts in the railing. There’s also the shadow of one of the hammocks, although it doesn’t make much sense because it doesn’t seem to match up very well with either hammock, and the reflection of the green hammock in the wall of the building.

The leaves in the background are dark and shadowed, but outlined in white, which makes them seem just a bit reflective or shiny. At first glance I thought the wavy green blob around the corner post was rain water flowing down from the roof, but after some thought my guess is that it represents ivy or some climbing plant growing up and around the post.

Overall the painting feels like a rustic relaxation spot, where one doesn’t need to focus on details so much and can live a bit lazily and sloppily. I'm reminded of Costa Rica, as it has a very Latin-American feel to it. It seems very secluded, as there are no people or signs of them (discarded shoes, an open book, a half-empty glass, etc.). Perhaps it is a bit less welcoming and comfortable for that.