WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART | APRIL 28 – SEPTEMBER 18, 2011
A floor apart from the mid-career retrospective of Glen Ligon at the Whitney Museum, a gallery-turned-sanctum offers its own glimpse into black experience—in a manner apart from the literalism of Ligon’s neon signs flickering “AMERICA.” The films of Kevin Jerome Everson, also speaking through light and shadow to represent blackness in the American experience, possess a keen ability to show rather than tell.
The deftest of Everson’s plainspoken vignettes of daily life are montages of archival and original footage. Many of these shorts depict the presence of big industry—auto making is a heavy hitter here—without losing sight of the human scale; they are quiet reveries that emerge in opposition to megalithic economic drivers. In “American Motor Company,” two men mount a billboard sign for Volkswagen Ohio, whose slogan reads “There’s a bit of cool in every bug” beside an image of a hip black man leaning against the car. The brashly manufactured “jazziness” of the ad is set against the factual, simple work of the harnessed sign installers who unfold the tableau and stretch it smooth. The film naturally begins and ends with their work.
Some racial confrontations lend themselves less to understatement: “Playing Dead,” an archival film from the 1970s, pans from a suburban house with a car in the driveway to the car’s broken window, bloodied seats, and spatters on the ground. In front of the car, a white journalist interviews a black man, who recounts the previous night, when five white men attacked him and his brother just after they pulled into the driveway. The men killed his brother seated beside him, and the bandaged interviewee explains how he barely escaped by playing dead. Through capsule histories, Everson reminds us of the embedded hatreds in our culture by simply re-presenting such found clips and letting the title mean what it says, adding little else.
Of the suite of films cast on one of the gallery’s four opposing screens, “According To” is perhaps the most ingeniously edited. It rends open the presumed objectivity of television journalism through its updates of news stories concerning blacks in the rural South. The establishing shot shows an elderly black man in his home, relating boyhood recollections of working as a paperboy to Everson behind the camera. Cut to local news reports and mottled archival footage about the drowning of a black man in Virginia. Intercut among these blurred and burnt-out pictures are clips of the old man, who remembers how people did not always pay him for his paper runs. A revised report follows: we now learn that the drowned man was allegedly found by the white owner of the lake where the black man was boating. Bystanders claim that they could not find medical assistance in time; images of the man on a gurney endow the story with ambivalent pathos.
“According To” confirms the indeterminacy of the narrative source of these tragedies: in a second report, “an elderly negro woman died of burns today,” which is later described as an act of arson, a hate crime. A third item breaks with the first two in tone: a black man, arrested for shooting a white man, straightaway confesses to the crime. His clean honesty exposes journalism’s supposed neutrality as a repressive means of preventing real disclosure. Everson remembers and haunts.
Further, Everson’s careful framing of these stories within the context of an old man who says he can’t remember the details of his past, indicts the film image as a medium that purports to objectively capture life while it hides the salient facts. At the end of the piece, when a young black girl drops off a paper on the old man’s porch and requests her payment, Everson completes the storytelling cycle with an elliptical turn extending across generations.
Everson’s white light and crepuscular shades of black emanate a visual equivalent to oral history. I am reminded of the populist yet personal histories anthologized by Studs Terkel in Working. Agricultural laborers, newsboys, factory workers, and scores of others inhabit Terkel’s collection and, likewise, Everson’s incantatory images. Like Terkel, Everson lets his subjects speak for themselves. When they do, they describe the rise of the mechanized workforce through the experience of years of physical labor, not through statistics. Everson’s films evoke history and re-imagine it through the subjects he selects and the cadence of his frames.
Everson’s reveries of American labor and popular culture extend to black entertainment, revealing the fault lines of de facto segregation in a supposedly post-segregation America.
In “Something Else,” a white journalist interviews a young, freshly minted Miss Black Roanoke, Virginia. He asks her, ”Do you prefer to be in a segregated pageant?” “Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of preference,” she says. “It has to be segregated in order to feel up.”
Though his found footage and firm handle on black America has much to say, what is most striking is the delicacy with which Everson renders individual histories through a first-person lens—free from the burden of telling, far from keeping silent. Horseback riding, fencing, boating, beekeeping: Everson’s eye for folk traditions and those who practice them are encoded with an alchemical light, a burnished, fiery glow.
One of Everson’s most ravishing ruminations is “Ninety-Three,” which flooded my field of vision when I first walked into the space. Our elderly orator from “According To” is recognizable here. In a grainy black-and-white vignette, we watch him take a deep breath, as if to fill his lungs with a gust stronger than age itself, and try, in Everson’s honey-thick mesh of slow-motion, to blow out a cake full of birthday candles. The old man’s reaction, which flickers across his face as he realizes they are trick candles, is appropriately measured.