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Glenn Ligon: Call and Response at Camden Art Centre

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.

Glenn Ligon. Live (detail), 2014; video installation; size variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Camden Art Centre, London. Photo: Valerie Bennett

Glenn Ligon. Live (detail), 2014; video installation; size variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Camden Art Centre, London. Photo: Valerie Bennett.

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.

Glenn Ligon. Untitled (Bruise/Blues), 2014; painted neon, size variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Camden Art Centre, London. Photo: Valerie Bennett

Glenn Ligon. Untitled (Bruise/Blues), 2014; painted neon; size variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Camden Art Centre, London. Photo: Valerie Bennett.

However, the true standout of the show is Live (2014), a synchronized projection of seven videos whose subject is the postmodern black icon Richard Pryor while still in his prime. The source of this footage is Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982). The concert footage captures a sober and reflective Pryor–a man so powerfully on top of his game and in his own moment that even nearly killing himself wouldn’t stop him. Ligon seizes on this image of invincible, ultra-cool black male identity by objectifying it. He is able to do this through the Deleuzian cinematic construct of the affection-image. Often generalized as a close-up of the face, the affection-image is more than that. It’s the camera’s tunneling focus to a specific part of the subject, and in that close-up, an explicit kind of information is passed to the viewer. Ligon’s use of Pryor is reinforced by omitting the soundtrack, leaving only the man’s movements to be deconstructed over seven video projections positioned to face each other around the unlit room. Aside from the one projection that offers a 1:1 scale of the full image in a lower corner of the gallery, each of the other six large projections centers on a particular feature of Pryor: his left hand, his right hand, his full head, his signature mustached mouth, his groin, and his afro’s shadow. The particular subject on each screen has been cropped and continually occupies the center of its frame. The videos are in sync but alternately timed so that no more than four are on at any given time. What the viewer sees is a dizzying array of moving images flickering on and off for five to twenty seconds at a time. This renders it impossible to consider these objectified parts individually. We look at Pryor and he looks back at us through his honed and affected gestures.

Glenn Ligon. Come Out, 2014; painted neon, size not offered. Courtesy of the Artist and Camden Art Centre, London. Photo: Valerie Bennett

Glenn Ligon. Come Out, 2014; painted neon. Courtesy of the Artist and Camden Art Centre, London. Photo: Valerie Bennett.

These works are linked through Ligon’s use of call-and-response as a means to understand the complex black experience in America. Though the concept seems simple, Ligon’s manifestation is multifaceted. It’s not simply an answer to a signal, but making the entire situation visible through a framework. Ligon is a master of filtering the horde of responses by constructing a narrative out of the voices of the other. The work on view here is a reflection on the entirety of the call-and-response of the situation–a layering of combined actions around a collective condition, and one that needs to be repeatedly heard.

Glenn Ligon: Call and Response is on view at the Camden Art Centre, London, through January 11, 2015.

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