New York

View of “Kevin Jerome Everson,” 2021. From left: Opel, 2021; Signal Thirty, 2021.

View of “Kevin Jerome Everson,” 2021. From left: Opel, 2021; Signal Thirty, 2021.

Kevin Jerome Everson

In North America, the formal rigor of avant-garde cinema has fostered the impression that its foremost practitioners disdain emotional expression. Yet this cannot be said of the movement’s nominal godfather, the late Jonas Mekas, whose films are saturated with plaintive meditations on his childhood in rural Lithuania, his years in DP camps following World War II, and his provisional reconstitution of a home in New York. This story of rupture and dislocation, critic David E. James has observed, follows the thematic arc of modernity itself, wherein the comforting rhythms of agrarian life are overtaken by the unruly flux of the metropolis. Filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson has rooted his art in a personal narrative every bit as resonant as Mekas’s. A descendant of African Americans who moved north from Mississippi during the second wave of the Great Migration, the fifty-six-year-old Everson grew up in the Rust Belt town of Mansfield, Ohio. His films draw freely from the avant-garde repertoire of experimental techniques to explore those themes of race, class, and labor that make his biography so emblematic of American history’s past half century.

Everson’s go-to device is the long take. Like Wang Bing and Sharon Lockhart, he uses extended sequences to convey the monotony, repetition, and embodied intelligence of skilled labor. For instance, Park Lanes, 2015, which painstakingly documents the daily procedures of a facility specializing in bowling-alley supplies, lasts the full eight hours of a nine-to-five shift. (Whereas Tacita Dean recorded a soon-to-close factory’s production of 16-mm film stock in order to mourn celluloid itself, Everson likely would have asked us to spare a thought for the company’s employees.) In Opel, 2021, the two-channel installation at the center of his exhibition “Mansfield Deluxe,” Everson exchanged the static shots of Michael Snow for fluttering handheld camerawork more reminiscent of Stan Brakhage. The piece was inspired by Everson’s high-school memories of US Army recruiters who pressured his classmates to enlist by exploiting their financial worries; a common sales pitch was that buying a car while stationed abroad in Panama or West Germany would be cheaper than purchasing one domestically. Two 16-mm black-and-white films, converted to digital and projected on either side of a freestanding wall, showed toy cars against a blank backdrop. Blurred-motion shots and jump-cut editing obscured the cars’ diminutive scale and imbued them with velocity and allure. Over speakers, automobile technical specifications were read aloud in German and Spanish. Even for those unfamiliar with either language, a patter peppered with terms such as Verbrennungsmotor and kilómetros por hora would have been recognizable from countless car commercials that posit an equivalence between horsepower and happiness.

If the glacial pace of Park Lanes stressed the outward exertions of working-class life, the quivering speed of Opel conveyed something of its psychic dimensions. On either side of the installation’s central wall were sculptures made from black rubber, the first a set of traffic cones based on those seen in a 1959 driver-education film (now banned for its egregiously gruesome footage of accidents), the second a pile of tires cast from the mold of one originally produced by Mansfield Tire, a shuttered factory in Everson’s hometown. The white flashes of the film periodically illuminated an embossed serial number that ran along the interior curve of the tires’ sagging tubes. The juxtaposition of the sculptures’ exacting materiality and the films’ seductive flicker established the structure of feeling that the late cultural theorist José Esteban Muñoz describes in his 2009 book Cruising Utopia as the bridge between the here and now and an inchoate there and then. For Muñoz, the particularity of everyday life, the concreteness of what we can touch and see, ballasts our hopes for an otherwise intangible future. Army recruiters and advertising firms cynically exploit this yearning by wrapping cars in the gimcrack promises of the American dream. By contrast, Opel explores the gap between the immediate and the aspirational with greater ambivalence, betraying the hard-won knowledge that the desire for a brighter tomorrow is so often shadowed by irreparable loss.