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Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)
"There is a custom in the village - I am told it is repeated in many villages - of buying African natives for the purpose of converting them to Christianity. There stands in the church all year round a small box with a slot for money, decorated with a black figurine, and into this box the villagers drop their francs. During the carnival which precedes Lent, two village children have their faces blackened-out of which bloodless darkness their blue eyes shine like ice-and fantastic horsehair wigs are placed on their blond heads; thus disguised, they solicit among the villagers for money for the missionaries in Africa. Between the box in the church and blackened children, the IJ village "bought" last year six or eight African natives. This was reported to me with pride by the wife of one of the bistro owners and I was careful to express astonishment and pleasure at the solicitude shown by the village for the souls of black folks. The bistro owner's wife beamed with a pleasure far more genuine than my own and seemed to feel that I might now breathe more easily concerning the souls of at least six of my kinsmen. I tried not to think of these so lately baptized kinsmen, of the price paid for them, or the peculiar price they themselves would pay, and said nothing about my father, who having taken his own conversion too literally never, at bottom, forgave the white world (which he described as heathen) for having saddled him with a Christ in whom, to judge at least from their treatment of him, they themselves no longer believed. I thought of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, strangers there, as I am a stranger here, and tried to imagine the astounded populace touching their hair and marveling at the color of their skin. But there is a great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives..." (James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village, 1955.
Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)

Untitled (Stranger in the Village #17)

Details
Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)
Untitled (Stranger in the Village #17)
signed twice, titled and dated twice '2000 Glenn Ligon Stranger In The Village #17' (on the reverse)
acrylic, oilstick, coal dust and resin on canvas
78¼ X 132¼ in. (198.7 x 335.9 cm.)
Executed in 2000.
Provenance
D'Amelio Terras, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2001
Literature
B. Pollack, "Up Now: 'Glenn Ligon: Stranger,'" ARTnews, April 2001, p. 140.
Exhibited
New York, Studio Museum in Harlem, Glenn Ligon: Stranger, January-April 2001, pp. 16-17 and 32 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles, California State University, Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Not Cooperative, February-March 2010.

Lot Essay

Glenn Ligon's beautiful and powerful Untitled (Stranger in the Village #17) is a preeminent example of one of the artist's iconic text paintings in which he engages in a debate about the nature of identity and "belonging" in modern society. Spanning themes as diverse as race, sexuality, and the relevance of painting in contemporary art, these works take the viewer on a journey that challenges strongly held assumptions with an intellectual strength and aesthetic vigor that can be seen in every inch of its highly structured surface. By appropriating powerful historical texts and representing them in a contemporary way, Ligon reasserts the validity of an age-old debate while at the same time updating it for a modern audience, attesting to its ongoing relevance and significance.

Taking a section of text from James Baldwin's 1955 essay Strangers in the Village--a story about a visit to a remote Swiss village and the various encounters with a population that had never met a black man before--Ligon recreates Baldwin's text by stenciling the words over and over again, layer upon layer, until he builds up a thick strata of literary impasto. By mixing coal dust into the medium Ligon gives the work an enthralling architectural dimension, rendering the power of Baldwin's words in physical form. Ligon's intention was to discover a visual means to parallel the deeply serious import of Baldwin's narrative: "...it was about responding to the text...I wanted the material that I was using for the paintings to have the same kind of gravitas as the text. I was also looking at Warhol's diamond dust paintings and became intrigued by the idea of the addition; material that is laid on top of the paint and changes. I came to coal dust accidentally. I was working with a silkscreen printer who said that he had printed some work using this stuff called "magnum." Magnum is a waste product, a leftover from coal processing. It is basically just coal dust gravel. Without even seeing it, I thought, 'This is perfect', in part because the words 'coal dust' had all these associations" (G. Ligon, quoted in S. Andrews, "Glenn Ligon: in Conversation," in Glenn Ligon - Some Changes, exh. cat., Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, 2005, p. 173).

Untitled (Stranger in the Village #17) is also a work that is inherently about race. From the choice of subject matter to the cultural connotations about the blackness of coal dust, Ligon's text painting explores and engages the tensions of the artist's youth. From growing up in the Bronx at a time of civil unrest to his acceptance of his own sexuality, through to his time at the Whitney Museum of American Art's Independent Study Program where painting was virtually dismissed, Ligon uses the strengths he has gained from these experiences and commits them to canvas with intensity and purpose.

By building up layers of paint, oilstick, acrylic, and coal dust, Ligon takes this work to the point where the words border on the abstract. This process recalls the paintings of Jasper Johns and his muscular, insistent, systematic use of text, adhering to splash font style and grid-like disposition of run-on sentence structures. However, Ligon retains the sense of his text, as in the works of artists like Jenny Holzer, in order to comment on the ephemeral and unstable meanings of language. Even the use of coal dust speaks to his concern for the obscure and the transient: "[Coal dust] obscures the text while making it more present and sculptural. There is always that push/pull in the work, of desire for legibility and disappearance of the text" (Ibid., p. 173). These high peaks and deep ravines draw the viewer in, encouraging a deeper contemplation of the words than if they appeared simply printed onto paper. In the same way Christopher Wool's fragmented words force the viewer to reassess the conventions of language, Ligon renders the text in a way that encourages a deliberate consideration of the words that might otherwise have been all too easily dismissed.

An artist for whom the printed word holds deep significance, Ligon "wants to make language into a physical thing, something that has real weight and force to it" (Glenn Ligon, quoted in R. Smith, "Lack of Location Is My Location," New York Times, 16 June 1991, p. 27). He also listens hard and close to varieties of both spoken and written language and to the subtleties of syntax and style, while looking closely at the forms and reproduction of language, at printing processes, formatting, and typefaces. The present work speaks in a respectfully borrowed, first person voice of black subjectivity even as it registers the denial and continuous silencing of that same voice. Here, Ligon has challenged the transparency of language and text by changing the conditions of its reproduction. These changes have resulted in language that is difficult to decipher and sometimes impossible to see, but for Ligon, as here in the present work, text remains intensely powerful, a symbolic form that transmits vital and enduring meaning.

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