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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Navigating Extremes

Art Review

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The work of Washington, D.C.-based performance and video artist Jefferson Pinder, featured at Inova/Kenilworth through mid-June, is a study of race through metaphorical opposites: figures in motion against backgrounds in stasis; dark in the context of lightness; black in the context of whiteness. Even when Pinder's videos are in color, he often exploits the camera's ability to overexpose and blow out backgrounds, leaving faces and figures floating in negative space.

In the West Gallery, four of Pinder's video works will remain on view for the duration of the show, while a series of single-channel video pieces appears in the screening room, each video looped one at a time for a few days apiece. Patience or procrastination is rewarded: From June 3-14, a compilation of the videos shown in the previous weeks will be screened. For now, the rotation of screened pieces offers, from week to week, a variable cross-section of Pinder's work. From May 6-17, the gallery is devoted to pugilism; two of the installed pieces, Fisticuffs and Passive/Resistance, are shown with Ali(Shadow Boxer). The week before, Pinder appeared in Invisible Man, wearing his characteristic gray suit, the everyman's uniform. Surrounded by a dozen or so dim, pendulous light bulbs, Pinder is at first obscured by darkness. Bathed in light as the bulbs are illuminated, he soon disappears; his image obliterated by a whiteout until only the faint outline of his black tie remains.

In Juke, also installed in the West Gallery, Pinder combines pop music, all by white singers, with the faces of 10 individuals who vary in the darkness of their skin, age, gender and degree of theatricality. The songs Pinder chose were penned by white songwriters, but pop tradition, of course, is deeply rooted in black music, and with Juke he reclaims them. On a series of flat-panel monitors, each shows a person in close-up. A woman lip-syncs to Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," another young woman shouts silently along to Patti Smith's "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," and Pinder himself takes a turn with Bowie's "Space Oddity."

Pinder's videos are both documents of performance and self-portraits, and despite the drama of dichotomy and tension, they feel at times detached, emotionless, defused. Pinder's silent, gray-suited onscreen persona becomes less an individual and more a symbol, which gives Pinder the artist the freedom to navigate between extremes. In Passive/Resistance, Pinder is repeatedly slapped by a white man for nearly five minutes. His face reflects surprise, anger, empathy. His eyes narrow and close, but they never ask for mercy. While in the world outside the gallery we are divided in terms of color and class, in Pinder's mirror-world we are actors or viewers, passive (though not innocent) bystanders, and he retains complete control.

Jefferson Pinder: Anthology runs through June 14 at Inova/Kenilworth.

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