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Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)
Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)

Stranger #75

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960)
Stranger #75
signed, titled and dated 'Glenn Ligon Stranger #75 2013' (on the reverse)
oil stick, acrylic, and coal dust on canvas
80 ¾ x 59 7/8in. (205 x 152cm.)
Executed in 2013.
Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2014
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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan

Lot Essay

“Coal dust is an interesting material for me because it’s beautiful. It’s a black, shiny material, but it’s also a waste product … from coal processing. I am drawn to it because of all of the contradictory readings it engenders. leftover Worthless. Waste. Black. Beautiful. Shiny. Reflective."
– Glenn Ligon

A stunning example of his acclaimed text-based paintings, Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #75 is a testament to the artist’s own career-long investigation into race, identity, and recognition. In a vast, black landscape of literary fragments, Ligon has rendered the text from famed African American writer James Baldwin’s 1953 essay Stranger in the Village and dramatically preserved it as the subject matter of this striking work. Baldwin’s written response to his own experience of the reception he received from the people of a remote Swiss village who had never seen, let alone conversed with a black person before, the essay consists of several prejudiced interactions, oscillating between curiosity and fear. 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. The physical and emotional impact of Stranger #75 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.).
Though Stranger in the Village was originally written at the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Ligon’s emotional response to the text, which he has returned to again and again over half a century later, is evident in his physical treatment of medium. Each letter is individually and repetitively stenciled in black oil stick against black acrylic paint and solidified with coal dust, which Ligon uses for multiple connotations: “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 … from coal processing. I am drawn to it because of all of the contradictory readings it engenders. leftover 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.). Ligon’s laborious and emotional process is evident in the final finish of Stranger #75. In a ‘black-on-black’ finish, the formidable texture of Baldwin’s words fill the surface from edge-to-edge, making the actual words difficult to decipher, seeming to appear and then disappear as we struggle to read them. Ligon’s use of texture has solidified Baldwin’s experiences of intolerance, but has also made them almost invisible.
Stranger #75 shows the artist’s ability to challenge transparency of language and text by changing the conditions of its reproduction. Intensely process-oriented, the painting transforms and transgresses, further activating Baldwin’s words while denying the viewer the visual relief he or she might experience had the text been made legible. For Ligon, the picture’s impenetrable blackness is both formidable and defensive, channeling the multifaceted approach to race that Baldwin experienced in the course of his travels. A striking example in the artist’s series, Stranger #75 contemplates what it means to be seen, and not seen.
In the words of critic Hilton Als: “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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