KEVIN JEROME EVERSON’S two-minute film Something Else (2007) begins with a bit of worn color 16 mm—evidently shot for a local television-news station, perhaps sometime around 1970—depicting an interview with Miss Black Roanoke, Virginia, a young woman in a scoop-necked russet gown, with a sparkling tiara perched atop her Afro. The footage seems battered by time. The sound drops out, more than once, and split-second bits of dialogue repeat, as if two prints had been badly spliced together. Following some initial questions, the awkward white male reporter asks the beauty queen whether she’d prefer to be in a racially integrated event or remain in segregated pageants. “Well, I don’t think it’s a matter of preference,” she responds, smiling sweetly into the reporter’s microphone. “I think it’s a matter really of whether I was to win or lose, you understand. Because in the other pageant—I call it the regular pageant—the black girl doesn’t have much of a chance of winning. I hate to say it, but it’s kind of true. It’s not that it’s segregated, but it’s necessary to segregate, in order to give black girls a chance to feel . . . ‘up.’ ” As soon as she utters that final word, Everson’s film cuts to silent images of a more recent African American pageant queen, waving from atop a parade float, shot from a low angle on digital video, artificially distressed to imitate the flaring light leaks at the end of a roll of 16-mm film.
This bit of the past replayed in Something Else might strike some viewers as unexpected—an African American woman calmly arguing for the benefits of a segregated institution, applying the theory of Black Power to the pageant system. Such an emphasis on the overlooked particulars of history has become increasingly central to Everson’s filmmaking, which now comprises nearly seventy short pieces made since 1997 and four feature-length films: Spicebush (2005), Cinnamon (2006), The Golden Age of Fish (2008), and Erie (2010). For more than a decade, working in numerous film and video formats, Everson has presented images of the lives of African Americans—and other people of African heritage, worldwide—through his own distinctive practice of cinematic portraiture, a blend of fiction and documentary that analyzes minute aspects of individual personality by homing in on everyday gestures of labor and leisure. Whether shot from real life, rediscovered in archival images, or performed according to Everson’s direction, these gestures subsist as parallels and cognates for artmaking. His films suggest not records of reality but, rather, recordings of performance.
Thus, in Something Else, the significance of Miss Black Roanoke’s statement lies as much in its structure as in its content, functioning as an example of the material practice of her avocation: the media interview as part of the beauty queen’s job. At the same time, her statement points to the many variations on individual experience and expression that transpire, for the most part unremembered, within the larger sweep of history. Everson captures and reclaims the particularity of this woman’s performance by reduplicating the final word of her statement “I felt very privileged” in a way that viewers might think indicates a physical problem with the footage: The added emphasis raises the question of how and exactly in what manner a young black woman in the South would have experienced “privilege” at that point in time. As signaled in the angle of the film’s second shot, Everson is less interested in bird’s-eye views than in observations from the ground up. Achieved through an understated formalism rather than through traditional documentary modes, this materially inflected history of racial politics remains always immanent, even if, at times, occluded in symbolism and metaphor.
Similarly, in The Reverend E. Randall T. Osborn, First Cousin—part of the 2007 “Cleveland Trilogy,” which also comprises North and Emergency Needs (the latter shown in the 2008 Whitney Biennial)—Everson reedits monochrome footage of an African American television reporter interviewing the titular Reverend Osborn (“first cousin to the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King,” as the reporter himself announces), at night, against a sharply lit white brick wall. The youthful but determined Osborn relates an incident of police violence in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland during the race riots there in July 1966, and his account is intercut with reaction shots of the unnamed reporter nodding to his words. Here, Everson shifts the focus slightly to the reporter himself, who is shown barely evincing emotion, his voice perfectly even, in a calm but insistent telejournalistic tone. By the end of the three-and-a-half-minute film, it becomes apparent that Everson has subtly duped and repeated these shots of the reporter, increasing his presence in the footage and underscoring its theatrical construction. The significance of the piece thus moves away from the obvious grand narrative of racial conflict and civil rights–era protest toward the trace of this reporter’s unheralded career, expanding what Everson sees as the slim cinematic and televisual record of African Americans and suggesting that significances lie at the margins of this visual history.
Understated artistic interventions such as these go back to the earliest instances of Everson’s work, in sculpture, photography, and installation. The exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1994 included Mansfield, Ohio, End Table, 1994, one of a series of small tables Everson hand-fabricated to imitate the mass-produced modernist furnishings found in the working-class homes of Mansfield when he was growing up there in the 1970s (and at least one critic at the time missed Everson’s handiwork, mistaking the piece for a readymade). On the table he placed framed photographs: some, portraits taken for high school yearbooks; others, snapshots of prison guards. “What I really liked was the fact that I knew people, like my parents or my uncles or neighbors or whatever, would go down to Bing’s Furniture,” he told Cinemad magazine in 2006, “and pick out frames for family pictures and assemble them in their house.” The photos of corrections officers silently bear witness to Mansfield’s painful transition to a postindustrial economy: By the early ’90s, the local prison had become one of the city’s major employers.
This same socioeconomic circumstance underwrites one of Everson’s early films, Second Shift (1999), which depicts a guard at a correctional facility—played by the filmmaker himself—arriving at work through a repetition of specific actions: lugging his lunch pail to the counter, placing his keys in a plastic bin for inspection. The camera crops Everson from the shoulders down, an unusual framing that emphasizes the motions of his hands. The kind of mundane tasks alluded to indirectly in installations like Mansfield, Ohio, End Table are here explicitly depicted. The somatic repetition typical of daily labor recurs in later films such as A Week in the Hole (2002), which portrays a tyro worker at a paint factory learning the skills needed for his job, and Company Line (2009), narrated by Mansfield municipal employees, shown plowing and deicing streets that once demarcated the areas where southern African Americans had settled during the Great Migration after World War II.
Beyond his clear emphasis on the experiences of everyday workers, Everson also stresses high-art models for his filmmaking. He has remarked that Emergency Needs, which pairs archival footage of a press conference by Cleveland’s first African American mayor, Carl B. Stokes, with a reenactment on an adjoining screen by a female actor, was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s seemingly identical collage paintings of 1957, Factum I and Factum II, which, hung side by side, reveal subtle variations—though the differences between Everson’s paired images are far more conspicuous, serving to call attention to Stokes as public actor. The filmmaker has also made related remarks about the content of his feature Cinnamon, which explores the black auto-racing subculture by following a fictional African American female driver through the routines of preparing for a competition in Virginia, where Everson now lives and works. “Drag racing is like abstract painting,” he told Filmmaker Magazine in 2006. “The layperson thinks it is easy, but it has its own complex language.” Everson’s own formal strategies are likewise a specific kind of cinematic abstraction. Elsewhere, he speaks of wanting to “abstract everyday actions and statements into theatrical gestures,” which he achieves in Cinnamon and other works by probing at the boundaries between scripted performance and documentary recording. And by drawing out the roar of engines into a rich and enveloping soundscape, he insists on the essentially aesthetic nature of drag racing, which, like art, is portrayed as both a physical and a technological discipline. Beyond these details, Everson’s point in invoking abstract painting is strategic, meant to dislodge any expectations of simple social realism. (It is also, undoubtedly, part of his own sense of performance that he brings to interviews and artist’s statements, which, like his films, are seemingly offhand but nonetheless rehearsed and precisely calibrated.)
Such comparisons also serve a larger purpose, as reminders of the collision between the formal necessities of art and the socioeconomic determinations of plain life. The resonance between the art of workers and the work of artists, a junction that Everson returns to again and again from different angles and by various methods, is not merely one of conceptual elegance. It should be felt—deeply—as a means of confronting and resolving the tensions and incongruities consequent to the sort of class migration of which Everson’s own life is but one example. It speaks of an urge to bridge disparate modes of living. What may have its roots in personal history becomes a platform for reflecting on and analyzing larger patterns in the structure of society through work that, while drawn from life, nevertheless avoids straightforward autobiography.
If art-world references are buried and complicated in his films, so, too, are the sociological verities that critics typically wish to mine from anything made by or about nonwhite cultures and the working class. In Everson’s work, tiny details are fabricated and fictionalized, archival footage is framed in new ways, events that seem documentary are directed and staged. Old Cat (2009) consists of an unbroken roll of silent black-and-white 16 mm, shot by Everson in a small boat navigating what seems to be a broad river. One man pilots the boat from a perch at the fore; another lies port side with his leg in a splint, crutch under his right arm. What seems like a single-take slice of life is in fact an instance of theater: The man’s injury is fabricated, inserted into the shot as a means of suggesting some unseen narrative. The half-hour-long BZV (2010) takes the same tack. Shot in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, as a commission for the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s “Where Is Africa?” program this year, BZV opens with another sequence on water—this time, featuring three young African men in a rumbling speedboat. Later shots show a woman walking through the city holding water skis, then a couple shopping for a bed frame who finally journey through the capital’s dirt streets, captured from the back as they navigate the roads, rolled-up foam mattress in their hands. Without narration and with little dialogue, BZV feels like documentary but is in fact entirely scripted, collecting fragments of a narrative into an open-ended whole. Everson once again proposes, then refuses, an anthropological role, instead crafting a fiction from the bits of reality at hand. This film of Africa works less as a window than as a surface, composed by the artist with several layers of remove. The cusp between reality and fiction is here more explicitly revealed in the displacement from America to Africa, but the de-realizing effect of cultural and class migration suffuses his work as a whole: The differences between modes of being allow everyday actions to more markedly present themselves as performances.
The strategies of Old Cat and BZV culminate in Everson’s latest and, arguably, strongest feature, Erie, which like these two shorter works is told in a series of long, unbroken takes, each shot on a single roll of grainy black-and-white reversal 16-mm stock. In the first sequence, two workers in hard hats unfurl a billboard depicting what appears to be an African American man in a beret, proudly posing with a Beetle, with a tagline reading THERE’S A BIT OF THE COOL IN EVERY BUG. VOLKSWAGEN OHIO. The billboard was fabricated by Everson: The photo is of his own uncle, taken while he was stationed in West Germany in the 1960s, though the film never reveals the picture’s origins. (Everson will install the billboard—titled American Motor Company, 2009—as part of his show at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo in June.) Succeeding events play with different kinds of duration: A title sequence shows Niagara Falls; a young girl (Everson’s daughter) stares at a lit candle as it melts; two men fence—one shirtless—in what looks like a dance studio or auditorium; young performers practice piano, singing, and krumping in a warehouse; workers sort and sterilize surgical scissors at a medical facility; and, finally, two women back on another boat in clear plastic rain ponchos approach the falls, wind whipping into the microphone and water clinging to the lens.
These scenes bear the inherent pleasures of actuality-style longueurs, but they also present tangential references to the story of African Americans in Ohio, Niagara Falls calling to mind the Underground Railroad’s great gateway to Canada, the medical workers evincing the area’s more recent transformation, especially hard-hitting in the Rust Belt, from a manufacturing to a service economy. The most overt gesture in this regard is a segment early in the film recording a conversation with some of Everson’s older relatives, former General Motors plant workers and UAW members reminiscing about how the unions were blamed for the industry’s decline. “Mainstream America,” one of them recalls, “really did not like a UAW worker. ‘You people should not be making that kind of money. You do not have the education to make that kind of money. How did you get that job?’ ” she mimics. “You didn’t need the education to have that job. You just needed to know how to do that job. And everybody was taught to do a job. It was a learning experience. You didn’t go in there knowing how to build a panel. Nobody knew that. Everybody had to learn to do that.” The discussion draws from local history but also returns to one of Everson’s primary considerations—that of labor as an ongoing mental and physical process of learning, as well as a form of discipline and performance not always understood as such from the outside.
The idea—the validation, even—of education through practice and repetition goes to the heart of Everson’s work, as seen in Erie and beyond. Because so much of his output feels fragmentary and evocative, with connecting themes hidden behind what only seems to be a documentary lucidity, his filmmaking benefits from cumulative viewings, patterns emerging slowly over time. This element of intentional opacity can be seen as a reaction to the identitarian baggage inherited from long-standing debates about the politics of representation in cinema. Everson rejects the role of cultural explainer in his work, opting instead to place the burden of understanding on the audience and its own labor. In this way, he has carved a place for himself outside both the typical expectations of documentary and the conventions of representational fiction, attempting to work from the materials of the worlds he encounters to create something else.
“More than That: Films by Kevin Jerome Everson” is on view April 28–September 18, 2011, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. This essay originally ran in the May 2010 issue of Artforum.