Born in 1960 in the Bronx, New York, Glenn Ligon is best known as a painter who uses text as a device for his works; however, he also employs a variety of other media, including photography and neon, to draw attention to the role of language in the formation and perception of culture. The artist recently had a critically-acclaimed mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Ligon's paintings incorporate literary fragments, jokes, and evocative quotes from a selection of authors, which he stencils directly onto the canvas by hand. In many works, the words are rendered visually indistinct by the oil stick and coal dust used for this process. For his ongoing series of Richard Pryor joke paintings, for example, Ligon transcribes jokes by the stand-up comedian which often explore issues of sexuality and race. Presented verbally by Pryor in the vernacular of the street, these jokes are intended to be heard rather than read, listened to rather than looked at. In the paintings they are dissociated from Pryor's characteristic voice and linked instead to the viewer's, who must mouth them, aloud or not. Within a gallery or museum context, the directness of their subject matter appears especially poignant.
Ligon's photo-based works similarly call into question the difference between seeing and reading, and between oral and written language. In a response to a well-known work by Adrian Piper from 1981, his Self-portrait exaggerating my black features Self-portrait exaggerating my white features presents a diptych of the same photograph of the artist wearing jeans, shirt, sneakers, and a straightforward expression. For his participation in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, Ligon juxtaposed Robert Mapplethorpe's famous photographs of black men with textual commentaries by a variety of artists, politicians, Christian commentators, queer theorists, and drag queens to reveal how cultural and social expectations are projected onto the photos.
Depicting black text against a white background, Stranger #44 poses a conceptual challenge for its definition: does it present a painting of a text? Text as painting? Or, in a broader abstraction, painting as text? Such questions become juxtaposed with the words, themselves, which were pulled from the well-known essay by American novelist James Baldwin called "Stranger in the Village" (1955). Here, Baldwin details his experiences as the first black person ever encountered in a small Alpine village in Switzerland during the early 1950s-an account which masterfully analyzes the historical concepts of "whiteness" and "blackness" from a personal, anecdotal perspective. The build-up of paint and coal dust on the painting's surface, which gradually becomes darker as the text proceeds from top to bottom, makes it impossible to make sense of individual letters almost from the very first line. This struggle to decipher the text emerges as an integral part of its meaning. Literally and metaphorically, the words carry weight and their dense, encrusted surfaces act as a parallel to the density of themes and references contained in Baldwin's essay.
In the early 1950s, American author James Baldwin spent several summers in the small Swiss village of Leukerbad. He had gone there to work on a novel but found the reaction of the villagers to his presence-one that vacillated between fear and fascination at his being the first black person most of them had ever seen-was of interest to him as a writer. The essay "Stranger in the Village" was the result of that
encounter. In 2011, we still imagine that there are strangers; that there is an "us" and a "them." But if Baldwin can teach us anything it is that there are no strangers. To call someone a stranger is to keep them at a certain distance, to deny them the possibility of approaching us and to keep us safe from their plight. In doing so we diminish them and we diminish ourselves. We need, as a society, to go in another direction. We need to go towards "them." To give a painting for an auction to benefit Haiti is just a small gesture towards eroding the distance between us.