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Glenn Ligon (B. 1960)
Stranger #37
signed, titled and dated 'Glenn Ligon Stranger in the Village #37 2008' (on the reverse); signed, titled and dated again 'Glenn Ligon 2008 Stranger in the Village #37' (on the overlap)
oil stick and gesso on canvas
96 x 72 in. (245.8 x 182.9 cm.)
Painted in 2008.
Thomas Dane Gallery, London
Private collection, Paris
Ivor Braka Limited, London
Private collection, United States

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

One of only twelve ‘white-on-white’ examples from Glenn Ligon’s seminal Stranger series, Stranger #37 is a prime example of the artist’s use of appropriated text to highlight the relationship between visibility and abstraction. Drawing primarily from African American authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, Ligon regularly employs appropriated text as a scaffold to build the surface of his work with his trademark stencil and oil stick.  In Stranger #37, an excerpt from James Baldwin’s landmark essay Stranger in the Village is built in high relief in white oil stick against an equally white, gessoed ground. With little fidelity to the stencil the artist arrives at an enigmatic surface that flickers in and out of legibility. The blurred boundaries of the letterforms and subtle tonal shifts ask the viewer to reconsider their visual acuity, and in turn, the nuanced issues of race, gender and identity.

First published by Harper’s magazine in 1953, and later as part of the author’s 1955 compilation Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin’s Stranger in the Village details the author’s experience living as the only black person in the small, rural town of Leukerbad, Switzerland.  In 1950s Leukerbad (a place with no racial diversity) African identity is kept at a distance, evidenced not only by a bigotry for outsiders, but also paternalistic donations and missionary work in Africa’s European colonies. In this setting, Baldwin confronts explicit discrimination in the countless attempts to paint him as an exotic outsider. Some warm up to Baldwin, but ultimately his complexion relegates him to a “stranger” status. Baldwin’s time in Leukerbad serves in contrast to the experience faced by African Americans at home, where hundreds of years of African American history have resulted in what Baldwin considers a more nuanced and uneasy shape of racism.  Occupying the same territory leads to more unsure boundaries and an inability for the white majority to “other” African Americans. For Baldwin, black identity in America is therefore characterized by an anxiety over these shifting perimeters.

With this concept of American black identity in mind, one can appreciate Ligon’s choice to push the viewer into the tenuous space between legibility and abstraction in his rendering of Baldwin’s text. The shifting boundaries of the letterforms in Stranger #37 become an extended metaphor for the text, and place more emphasis on the efficacy of the reader than they do the author. The work is by no means a mere translation of the text but rather a vehicle to open a dialogue on perception and a means to breakdown the rigid relationship we have with our language and societal structures. In fact, language reinforces these social structures and a type of identity politics Ligon (and Baldwin) would like brought into question. Like the space that opens up when figuration gives way to abstraction, so too can language be unfolded into its many layers of authorship, readership and legibility. Critical to Ligon’s image making is his simultaneous use and subversion of a stencil, which frees the viewer to see the image in many lights, and realize the arbitrary and deceitful nature of the forms we often take for granted. The white on white palette of this painting further reinforces the illegibility of the work and intentionally denies an easy read of Ligon’s transcription.

Ligon began his career with a strong interest in Abstract Expressionism, drawing on the energy and immediacy of artists such as de Kooning and Pollock. This influence can be seen in the way he approaches text paintings such as Stranger #37 in its all-over composition and evidence of the artist’s process. But Ligon goes further to complicate and confound by use of text and his characteristic stencil. By including such regularized forms instead of Ab-Ex gestures, he paradoxically creates a work perhaps more difficult to reconcile than a purely Abstract Expressionist image in that the text is there but cannot be easily deciphered.
In this, the work shares a more distinct relationship with the stencils, flags and targets utilized by Jasper Johns. As with Ligon’s thick pedimenti of oil stick, Johns’ thick strokes of encaustic and oil both employ and subvert the conventional and precise nature of his chosen forms. The stencil, in particular, provides a way to break down the link between the words and the meaning of prescribed forms as they become more image than symbol or text. Both artists make us reexamine quotidien letterforms in an effort to dismantle a rigid notion of language and symbol.

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