First Impressions, Second Thoughts

Jefferson Pinder's video installation at G Fine Art forces viewers to think about presumptions of race. At right, Michael Wichita's
Jefferson Pinder's video installation at G Fine Art forces viewers to think about presumptions of race. At right, Michael Wichita's "Cut Out" series at Flashpoint offers a witty reflection on masculinity and power. (G Fine Art)
By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 9, 2006

A rare, complicated and utterly engaging video work by Maryland artist Jefferson Pinder is on view in the back room of G Fine Art. Called "Juke," the piece uses a hoary bit of showbiz treachery -- lip-syncing -- to force us to think about our presumptions about race. And he does it in a way that argues for Pinder's stature as a major young artist, one who should garner further national and international attention.

With apparent ease, "Juke" picks up multiple threads of the art conversation. The piece examines race with a subtlety that's often hard to muster. It also harnesses technology to humane and appealing effect. Right now, video is probably the most difficult medium to get right, and Pinder does. Yet despite his work's high-tech, multiple-monitor setup, "Juke" suggests something much more familiar, like the jukebox conjured by its title and filled with (mostly) radio-friendly tunes.

"Juke" works like this: 10 video monitors hang in a row, head-height, stretching over two walls of the gallery's rear room. Step up to a screen and you'll come face-to-face with footage of either a man or a woman lip-syncing to a song you can't hear. Pinder recorded his participants -- all black, some friends of the artist, some folks he invited, almost all non-actors -- mouthing the words of pop songs. Each person was shot in one take, and each performance is looped. (The balladeer who looks a little like Malcolm X is the artist himself; Pinder often appears in his own work.)

Pinder has positioned his singers against a blinding white background and each wears a white top, creating a stark contrast between backdrop and a spectrum of dark skin. Walk into the gallery and you'll see a row of black people lip-syncing with varied degrees of earnestness or vigor. At first glance, the scene might evoke the close-ups of hip-hop music videos.

Or that's the assumption the artist expects us to make. And the one he's out to deflate.

It's not until visitors slip on headphones (one pair is attached to each screen) that they hear what each person sings. Turns out "Juke's" participants aren't lip-syncing to Jay-Z but to the whitest of white people's music. David Bowie. Radiohead. Ben Folds Five. Loretta Lynn. Johnny Cash. Many songs speak of isolation, dislocation and alienation. The anthemic Queen/David Bowie collaboration "Under Pressure" and '80s band Faith No More's "We Care a Lot" are sweeping tales of society's ills, told with varying degrees of irony.

At bottom, though, the songs Pinder picked are indebted, in style or mood or both, to black music. And it's just that kind of cross-pollination that underlies Pinder's project. With "Juke," he constructs conditions of high contrast -- black skin against white background, white voices issuing from African American faces -- to examine our underlying assumptions. What he delivers is a tremendous amount of welcome ambiguity.

'Consume' at Flashpoint

A five-person group show on view now at Flashpoint opens with the most familiar of all museum installations: the gift shop. Rows of T-shirts, candies, cookies and greeting cards, all either emblazoned with the show's title -- "Consume" -- or with images produced by its artists, are on sale. (Prices marked include sales tax. The gallery takes cash only. Proceeds go to the artists.) This is a down-market gift shop, to be sure, closer to a CVS than the National Gallery. But its adjustable metal shelving and simulated unit pricing make for an uncanny retail environment.

The installation announces that the show's participants and curator understand the system they participate in, namely, an art market keyed to spending. The faux shop underscores the goal of commercial galleries, which is the sale (that, and placing work in museums through connected collectors). At museums, even masterpieces that appear to reside outside the market can be brokered in the form of a poster or wall calendar.

The rest of the exhibition includes individual works by five young artists chosen by curator Angela Jerardi; the quintet examines consumption all of kinds, including food and pornography. Yet only a few of the works in this uneven show can match the opening salvo's wit and knowingness.

If consumption is this exhibition's theme, then overabundance is its leitmotif. For Heidi Neff, it's the plethora of pornography. Her black ink monoprints depict scenes of, er . . . adult content. Displayed hanging on the wall or inserted into a long wooden box like an old-fashioned card catalogue, the pictures are leached of titillation but nevertheless hard to look at. Neff's display suggests that consumptive urges are fed by the bounty that surrounds us, even when that plenty is plenty nasty.

The problem of too much -- in this case, calories -- is hinted at in Jessie Lehson's sugar sculptures and Michael Wichita's seemingly endless video of a melting gallon of ice cream.

Wichita's smartest piece is "Cut Out no. 1-20," a poster display case that you might find in the museum shop. Each pane houses a poster -- depicting a cutout picture of a suave, '70s-era man -- that's held up in front of any number of iconic backgrounds. Here's a picture of a cowboy shot against the Capitol. Here's a fellow in front of a Martha Stewart-ready white porch. The pictures question masculinity and power structures in a smart and funny way.

The rest of the show's works are less successful. Lani Iacovelli's videos examining self-indulgence are self-indulgent themselves -- monitors placed in uncomfortable booths are intentionally difficult to access, but the result is visitor annoyance. Christopher Lawrence's tactile, shellac-heavy works seem out of place in a show about the sleekness of prepackaged culture and its power to obscure uncomfortable truths.

Jefferson Pinder and Iona Rozeal Brown at G Fine Art, 1515 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-462-1601, to Jan. 6.

Consume at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday noon-6 p.m., 202-315-1305, to Jan. 6.

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