A video installation at Warren Wilson College shrouds the Elizabeth Holden Gallery in total darkness. That darkness, though, is intermittently broken by Jefferson Pinder: Work, a series of 10 flickering and quick-witted performance videos that illuminate the artist’s physical-turned-social struggle against the grain of an ambiguous working-class backdrop.
Pinder, an artist and associate professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, is the protagonist in each piece. He appears as a pseudo-archetypal hero, clad in a white shirt, black neck tie and gray woolen suit. The suit ultimately transforms into a uniform as beat-driven, pop and hip-hop soundtracks continuously propel him into action. “I begin a conversation with a physical task, a theatrical exercise,” he tells Xpress. “It doesn’t matter if I succeed at it. It’s about the struggle.”
In “Mule,” Pinder is bound to a 300-pound log. It drags behind him, attached to a chain and thick leather harness. The sun is high and bears down on Pinder as he runs through seemingly-abandoned city streets and sidewalks. The camera angles switch every few seconds, creating dizzying, chaotic glimpses that resemble a chase seen. He occasionally pauses, glancing for the best route. However, there is no escape. “Pinder’s performances often depict the body at work,” says Julie Caro, a WWC art history professor and the exhibition’s curator. “[They’re] completing tasks that demand extreme physical exertion.” That work, though, produces little in the way of tangible results. In fact, many gain nothing and leave off right where they started.
The height of these high-velocity, yet painfully-fruitless endeavors is best seen in “Lazarus,” a 5-minute-long video about motion and community intervention. It’s also likely to be Pinder’s sharpest visualization on the individual’s struggle towards upward mobility and the role that society plays in that pursuit. The piece opens with Pinder seated in a vintage, minty-green Volvo parked on a country highway. After the engine fails to start, he opens the door and attempts to push it into the road. A passerby notices Pinder struggling and joins the effort. He squats in a wrestler’s stance and presses into the bumper. The two finally get the car moving.
The scenery changes from green pastures to city streets as a woman lays her grocery bag in the front seat and joins in the effort. Such is the pattern as person after person joins in. At this point, Pinder has hopped into the driver’s seat and navigates the human-powered vessel through traffic. The camera jumps from faces to hands to wheels. As the speed increases, the hands begin lifting away until the last pair has sent the vehicle off. The scenery changes abruptly for the last time. Pinder is back where he started, a disheartening return that suggests none of it actually happened. “The work and inertia are metaphors for social struggle and for the inability of many people in our society to be upwardly mobile despite working hard,” Caro says. “It’s becomes a theme. “Not just materially or socially,” she adds, “but aesthetically.”
Then there’s “Invisible Man,” a work that makes a literal and figurative nod to Ralph Ellison’s 1952 masterpiece by the same title. It’s Pinder’s most minimalistic, yet most visually-effective portrayal of the individual psyche. (It’s also happens to be a timely showing for North Carolina residents. Ellison’s book was recently banned in Randolph Co. by the Board of Education, who cited the book’s apparent lack of literary value and the difficulty it took to read.) Pinder, still in the gray suit, stands motionless in total darkness. His outline slowly takes shape as a series of light bulbs flicker on, one by one. Facial features become visible, as does the background — a low-ceilinged, red-brick basement of sorts. His eyes remain locked on the camera lens. But the lightbulbs eventually blind that very lens, rendering him invisible. The cycle makes its return, plunging Pinder back into total darkness.
The work is rare as it’s the only piece that directly brings race into an exhibition that, at first glance, seems so overtly focused on the subject. However, this is just not the case. Instead, Pinder says the works portray the human struggle — the struggle with and against one’s self or the community or society as a whole. It’s a universal topic, he says, not just an ethnic or societal cross-section. But, because Pinder is a black Chicago-based artist and each video’s protagonist, and because the cast and characters throughout the works are from multiple ethnic backgrounds, his intentions tend to get skewed. Thus, work becomes a surrogate to race. “It is easy to fall into the habit of assuming that work by African American artists is only about race and only about the artist expressing his/her experience as a person of color,” says Caro. “The work is of course about more than this.”
“With this particular medium,” Pinder says, “you don’t often see black protagonists portrayed in ways that aren’t focused on race.” And so, the mere presence of race combined with the physicality of Pinder’s actions makes it easy for people to automatically slip into that dialogue.
“It’s just baggage that other people bring to it,” he says. “It’s the nature of the beast.” This is not to say that he’s not race-conscious. He admits that the U.S. race relations and gender identity do indeed influence his work. But their roles, he says, add to the greater conversation about the greater human community.
“I think people need to be big-picture-oriented,” says Pinder. “With these moments it’s about the benefit of the next generation.”
Jefferson Pinder: Work is up through Nov. 17. Pinder will give a talk on Thursday, Nov. 7 at WWC’s Canon Lounge. Images courtesy of the WWC and the artist.