The designation Call and Response describes the antiphony effect, a device in speech in which a speaker elicits cadenced responses from the audience at systematic intervals. It’s a method that actively engages an audience, and although this universal device is as old as human speech in every corner of the world, in the American psyche it is particularly tied to black churches and the gospel tradition. Glenn Ligon, who has dedicated his career to deconstructing racial and sexual politics, applies the framework of call-and-response to specific events around the outward interpretation and resulting experience of being black in America.
Ligon’s Camden Art Centre show is a stellar example of his recent mid-career work. This is an artist who has refined his conceptual craft and knows how to illustrate ideas in large museum-sized pieces. Three bodies of work make up this show, each presented in a dedicated gallery. Come Out (2014) and Untitled (Bruise/Blues) (2014) both take their origin in the testimony of Daniel Hamm, one of six black youths arrested for murder during the 1964 Harlem race riot. For both of these works, Ligon extracts a poignant phrase that offers an unsettling critique of America’s omnipresent race issue, and then pushes the emotionally charged text to the point of abstraction. This abstracting offers a message that has been distilled, as if Ligon were attempting to represent fifty years of multifaceted responses to the call by consuming the same set of words over and over.