Steffani Jemison: Broken Fall
On ViewGreene Naftali
November 4 – December 4
In her debut solo show at Greene Naftali, Steffani Jemison presents a small retrospective survey that details a critical engagement with art history, popular visual culture, and the challenges of Black American experience. Shunning narrative expectations and de-accentuating language (while still acknowledging its pervasive shaping of the mind), Jemison employs decontextualization, through framing or otherwise, to produce a level of visual abstraction, even disorientation. Near the entrance, an inkjet print on bronze mirrored acrylic proclaims the elusive notion of Black Utopia (Black Utopia)(2017), its letters only legible from certain angles.
Broken Fall (Organic) (2008), the oldest piece and namesake of the exhibition, feels almost from another era, showcasing an aesthetic that predates the artist’s birth. The semi-archaic feel stems from its grainy image quality as shown on a CRT monitor, a standby in the first decades of video art. This brief 72-second piece depicts a young Black man from the torso up, clutching onto a tree branch until he releases his grip and falls out of frame. Jemison has reworked a 1971 piece by Bas Jan Ader, retaining the exact title and conceit. His version has the camera set further back, the distanced perspective making the artist’s actions seem absurd, nearly pathetic. Jemison instead focuses on the young man’s face, foregrounding his grimaces and anxious looks, in empathy with her subject’s discomfort. He remains dignified in his disappearance, while Ader resembles a tragic fool soaked in the stream below, like a clown inevitably dropped from a dunking stool.
Reimagining another vintage video work, The Meaning of Various Photographs to Tyrand Needham (2009–10) grapples with John Baldessari’s The Meaning Of Various News Photos to Ed Henderson (1973). Jemison takes on what she has deemed “the political and racial blind spots of the first generation of conceptual artists.”1 In both videos, an interlocutor asks a young man to interpret various photos they are shown. Instead of Baldessari’s vague and almost incidental newspaper photo clippings, Jemison draws from the well of Black American celebrity and public achievement, incorporating iconic images of Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising Black Power salutes in Mexico City, Michael Jordan in mid-flight and Robert Johnson with his freakishly long fingers (deemed “deformed” by Tyrand). Ed Henderson, the student Baldessari enlisted, seems bemused by the pictures, laughing as some are first revealed to him. Tyrand maintains a more serious undertone, but does flex his own humor when describing the funk band Earth, Wind and Fire with “maybe it’s Halloween?” But Henderson chuckles at the sight of police brandishing their guns at a young man laying face down on the sidewalk: a response highly unlikely to be repeated by Tyrand if faced with the same photo. Moreover, Henderson assumes the infallibility of the police, as “he had to have done a pretty serious offense” if they drew their guns.
A study of kinetic exertion, Escaped Lunatic (2010–11) depicts four men dressed identically in white t-shirt and jeans sprinting through urban intersections, parks, and playgrounds. Performing such feats as scaling a handball wall, these parkour athletes reflect Jemison’s use of trained professionals in her video work. As in her recent Similitude (2019), which features a man with mime and dance background, the specialized use of the body serves as core expression, verging on a sort of corporeal language. This works in parallel with what Jemison calls “the always embodied experience of language.”2 After a series of fixed position shots, shaky handheld footage elicits an uneasy suggestion of police pursuit videos; as the camera follows close behind, suddenly drooping down to shoot the ground in a jumpy sequence, Jemison evokes a tumbling kind of perception through the swirling flashes of grass and sky.
In Succession (2019) (2019) is the longest and most striking work on exhibit. In a vibrant black and white, nearly 20-minute high definition video projected upon a wall, young men of color form an ever-shifting human tower or ladder, climbing and balancing upon one another. Two separate takes have been rotated 90 degrees, so the original tops of the images now conjoin in the screen’s center. Rather than the usual dual perspective of a split screen, Jemison creates a melded, abstracted whole. The dynamic motion generated by panning induces visual syndromes of endless expansion, as clothes and body parts continually flow outward from the center. Or alternately, the images merge and vanish into that central point—shoes disappear into waistlines, legs and trees converge on the diagonal, a fused canopy lingers in shadow. Her use of slowed frame rates and suspended figures create a floating poise, as hands counterbalance on knees. In comparison, Jemison’s oldest pieces come off as critically astute but perhaps too reliant on referential aspects, limiting their expansive possibilities. Disparate visual affinities spring up. The fascinating central seam of rotated shots recurs in Ernie Gehr’s film Undertow (2019). John Akomfrah’s Five Murmurations (2021), with its luminous black-and-white original footage of women at home during the pandemic, shares the intimacy and vulnerability garnered by the tight framing of the balancing subjects: extreme proximity bringing us to their rib cages, feeling their breath amid the terrain of limbs. Drawn close, one senses a plenitude of relation, infinite variance in semi-synchronized movement, an entwined dance of fragments that find connection in combination.
- “Steffani Jemison by Ben Lerner” in Bomb Magazine #136, March 2017 https://bombmagazine.org/articles/steffani-jemison/
- “Steffani Jemison: ‘Recitatif (What if we need new words?)’” in The Kitchen OnScreen, https://onscreen.thekitchen.org/media/steffani-jemison-recitatif-what-if-we-need-new-words