Jefferson Pinder – First Impressions, Second Thoughts

The Washington Post

By Jessica Dawson
First Impressions, Second Thoughts

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.

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)

“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.