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Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)
Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)
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Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)

Stranger #34

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)
Stranger #34
signed, titled and dated 'Glenn Ligon Stranger #34 2008' (on the reverse); signed and dated again 'Glenn Ligon 2008' (on the overlap)
oil stick, coal dust and gesso on canvas
96 x 72 in. (243.8 x 182.8 cm.)
Executed in 2008.
Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Private collection, 2009
Luhring Augustine, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
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Brought to you by

Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #34 is a powerful and yet poetic painting that examines one of the most important and divisive topics of our time—that of race, identity, and what it means to belong. Using a passage from James Baldwin’s seminal 1953 essay Stranger in the Village as his subject matter, Ligon paints a monumental canvas in which a passage from the text is rendered in coal dust upon a black ground. This ‘black-on-black’ aesthetic means the actual words become difficult to decipher, seeming to appear and then disappear as we struggle to read them. They become in parts almost invisible, thus reinforcing the power of Baldwin’s original essay. Ligon first used excerpts from Stranger in the Village in 1996, and they have since become some of the most celebrated works of his oeuvre; Stranger #34 is one of the large-scale canvases that represent the pinnacle of this series, with other comparable examples being held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.

The expansive surface of the present work is filled edge-to-edge with Baldwin’s text, rendered by stenciling the individual letters, words, and phrases onto the surface and then covering them with coal dust. Sometimes the individual letters are legible and easily to comprehend, at other times they dissolve into spectral shapes that barely resemble the letters and words you know are there. The result is that the reader has to try hard to comprehend the meaning of the text that they know is there, persevering with trying to decipher each individual letter to extract a meaning, and in the processing taking more time to comprehend the implications of what is being read. In addition to the carefully considered black-on-black palette, the artist’s unique choice medium is also carefully considered too. “Coal dust is an interesting material for me,” Ligon explains, “because it’s beautiful. It’s a black, shiny material, but it’s also a waste product … leftover from coal processing. I am drawn to it because of all of the contradictory readings it engenders. Worthless. Waste. Black. Beautiful. Shiny. Reflective” (G. Ligon, quoted in Glenn Ligon: Stranger, exh. cat., The Studio Museum of Harlem, New York, 2001, n. p.). It also had a particularly poignant reference to Baldwin too, as in Stranger in the Village he describes the reaction of the local people to his appearance. “Some of them thought my hair was the color of tar… or put [their] hand on my hand, astonished that the color did not rub off” (J. Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” quoted in J. Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son,” 1955/1983, Boston, p. 166).

The passage from Stranger in the Village that Ligon uses in this particular painting is one of the most powerful parts of the essay, and highlights the unconscious —yet still very real—prejudice that is present in otherwise seemingly well-meaning individuals. “There is a custom,” it begins, “—I am told it is repeated in many villages—of ‘buying’ African natives for the purpose of converting them to Christianity.” Baldwin then on to describe the practice of the inhabitants of the villager where Baldwin is staying “their faces blackened” soliciting for money to send to missionaries in Africa in their bid to convert the “natives” to Christianity (the Swiss villagers proudly tell Baldwin they ‘bought’ at least six or eight African natives the previous year). He ends, rather sardonically, “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 kinsman” (J. Baldwin, op. cit., p. 167).

James Baldwin wrote Stranger in the Village in response to the reception he received from the people of a remote Swiss village who had never seen, let alone conversed with a black person before. This encounter with difference prompted the villagers to respond in a number of uncomfortable, if not overtly racist, ways. Baldwin took these interactions as an opportunity to compare the experience of being black in Europe, where black people were generally absent from the demographic, never having been imported en masse to the continent, and America, where slavery and the oppression of black people has been a defining feature of the culture and economy of the country since its inception. This overwhelming sense of oppression can be felt not only in the powerful rhetoric of the text, but also in the monumental dimensions of the physical canvas. Thus, the physical and emotional impact of Stranger #34 mirrors the feeling of trepidation that Baldwin felt on arriving in the remote mountain village back in the 1950s. In describing the “whiteness” of the village (both in terms of its population, but also in terms of the snow covered buildings surrounded by towering mountains covered in snow), Baldwin talks of an oppressive “white wilderness” of ice and snow as far as the eye can see (op. cit.).

In 2011, Glenn Ligon was the subject of a major retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In the catalogue to the exhibition, the critic Hilton Als describes how Ligon’s work is the perfect amalgamation of life and art, a perfect picture for our age: “To make a painting is to create a visual flourish in the world—to wave a flag of difference. But, of course, it's more complicated than that. Like [James] Baldwin's essay, Ligon's work—certainly in this series—is about being seen and not seen at the same time. The surfaces of the paintings, their layers upon layers of coal dust and handiwork, both draw you close and push you away (but where to? To the artist’s imagination? …The best clue is in the phrases Ligon has elected to borrow from Baldwin—maybe he chose the ones that resonate most with his own ‘I,’ with his sense of being a stranger in the village known as the art world, the queer aesthetic world dominated by men who do not look like Ligon or make art like him, let alone know anything about the source of his Stranger paintings.”

“To be a stranger,” he continues, “is to be excluded from the quotidian, to be ‘unreadable.’ The surface of Ligon's Stranger paintings are “strange” because of their texture—at first readable but, upon closer inspection, collapsing into a mass of words that can look like a mass of blackness, either hard or soft depending on the angle of view. Ligon remakes Baldwin’s language without changing the content. So, what is the relationship between the paintings and the essay? To understand Ligon, must one have read Baldwin? Or is it enough to read Ligon? Is each artist tapping into the same source—namely, how they’re haunted by the house they both inhabit: their black maleness?” (H. Als, "Strangers in the Village," in S. Rothkopf (ed.), Glenn Ligon: America, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2011. p. 211).

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