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Jefferson Pinder’s “Revival” is somebody’s nightmare. The most harrowing images in this multichannel video installation open in a parking garage. At the far end of the row lurks a menacing figure. The camera creeps forward toward him, its focus occasionally falling out of sync with the man—an effect that may heighten the viewer’s fear. The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” plays, and as the heavy-metal storm gathers force, it becomes clear that the man, who is black, knows every word.
This is the last place where some people might want to find themselves: caught, alone, in a poorly lit place, with an apparently angry black man. It’s the kind of fantasy terror that could have motivated George Zimmerman to stand his ground, if you will, against the hoodie-wearing, snack-packing Trayvon Martin, whose youth and race seem to have marked him as a threat in the man’s mind. But this may be the last place where Chukwumaa, the mononymous artist who stars in Pinder’s “Helter Skelter” video, wants to find himself, too. The idea that white people might perceive them as threatening at any time or place is a special nightmare that black men live daily.
Pinder’s “Revival” videos are portraits that examine the juxtaposition between socially constructed ideas of being black or white and the psychic reality of being black. The exhibition is a sequel to “Juke,” a series that Pinder showed at G Fine Art in 2006. “Revival” uses the same formula as “Juke”: videos of black people lip-synching to songs that code white. This time, Pinder employs five screens to show several singers at once, with music projected in the gallery (instead of the single-channel videos with headphones he used for “Juke”). The installation, designed by Pablo Van Winkle, is ready for a museum; “Revival” should be put in one.
The “Helter Skelter” portrait of Chukwumaa wouldn’t work nearly so well if it weren’t on view with a five-channel portrait of a group (Michael E. Harris, Kekeli Sumah, Dominick Reibrun, Orlando Pinder, and Ayodamola Okunseinde) lip-synching to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Reibrun is the focal point: His face strains to evoke every miserable note in Freddie Mercury’s lamentful opera. Reibrun reportedly works in IT in Chicago (where Pinder, who previously worked in D.C., now resides), but viewers will be forgiven for mistaking him for a trained actor. Where the heroes of the 1992 flick Wayne’s World famously headbanged along to the explosive allegro movement of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Pinder’s chorus instead merely stares forward—all except Reibrun, who gives it his everything. These are portraits, not karaoke music videos, and their effect is alternatingly stark, comic, and deeply sad.
The juxtaposition is not always funny. April Yvonne Garrett and Amy Sherald give nothing away with their rendition of the Indigo Girls’ “Prince of Darkness,” so the viewer is left with only the prickly effect of watching two black women—singing with the voices of white women—lyrics such as, “My place is of the sun and this place is of the dark.” Pinder controls every factor of his subjects’ portraits: With the exception of the dramatic setting of the “Helter Skelter” video, all the other portraits feature soft nighttime cityscapes as backdrops. Pinder’s subjects mostly evoke a stone-faced resoluteness. It’s unclear in the case of Garrett and Sherald what their affect signifies. Perhaps they possess a deep connection with the Indigo Girls’ music; perhaps they’re resisting a song they dislike, or don’t know.
One major difference between today and 2006, when Pinder first showed a video series like this: The range of music that codes as black in popular culture has expanded. Seeing Pinder and company sing along to Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” does not seem so unlikely—is that the word for it?—given the now-popularity of black musicians who toy with so-called authentic blackness, from Lil B to Frank Ocean. The most hyped album of 2013, Kanye West’s Yeezus, sounds like a Nine Inch Nails record from the 1990s more than the work of a mainstream black artist circa 2006. Today, it feels less like a gag than it might have in 2006 to see artist Wilmer Wilson IV taking the lead on Talking Heads’ “Born Under Punches.”
“Revival” is especially resonant now that the country is struggling to reconcile the death of Trayvon Martin with the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Pinder’s work has no direct bearing on the former’s death or the latter’s trial. But his videos explore how we are conditioned to see color by what we see in culture. It escapes (many of) us how Zimmerman saw helter-skelter in an unarmed teenage boy. “Revival” makes it the viewer’s job to parse out how popular culture can construct our understanding of what it means to be and act black.
Ayodamola Okunseinde gives the most inscrutable performance of all as he lip-synchs to The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma,” a song whose upbeat music belies its morbid lyrics. Pinder challenges the viewer to hear those lyrics come out of Okunseinde’s mouth and not hear something else in it. Morrissey and Okunseinde, singing the same words to the same tune, are not singing the same song. I’ll never think about “Girlfriend in a Coma” the same way again.