A Job Ain't Nothin' But Work
VIlla Romana, Florence
5/4 - 10/5/14
curated by Andrew Smaldone
Kevin Jerome Everson and Justin Randolph Thompson first met as teacher and student in Everson’s undergraduate film class seventeen years ago at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Since then, the artists have shown together on multiple occasions and have developed projects that concentrate on the manual tasks of people in both staged and filmed environments. They continue to develop this artistic relationship for A Job Ain’t Nothin’ But Work by focusing on the gesture of labor as performative act through the use of sculptural props, performance, sound and film. Work, or even breaking down the hierarchical expectations in relation to notions of work; consequently, lies at the heart of the art installed over the three rooms on the ground floor of Villa Romana.
In Everson’s two original short films titled Fe26 and Sound That (all works in show 2014), we see varying interpretations of what the idea of work constitutes in Cleveland, Ohio. In the former film, two men make their living hustling metal, while in the later, we see workers listening for underground water leaks. In each film one sees cultural fragments of working class African Americans making a living. Everson presents the viewer with what initially appears to be a straight documentary of these men performing such tasks, yet it becomes clear through the films’ progression that what he is documenting precisely are the nuances of individuals at work.
Thompson’s installation Labor Vincit Omnia, on the other hand, examines gestures of work that are more often associated with upper class entertainment and decor: performances involving classical music and elaborate floral arrangements with actual musicians and florists being two such examples. The artist stages the music lessons based on paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner and invites both teacher and student to learn a never before played score specifically written in collaboration with his brother Jason Thompson for the exhibition. Thompson has based his idea for building a floral arrangement on paintings, but this time on those of Otto Sholderer. While In his flagship piece in the center of the room, he erects a skeletal-looking triumphal arch with scaffolding, sculptural props and various sound instruments as a means to confound the idea that work is a smoothly operating social construct involving all on equal terms.
Time is another significant concept in both artists‘ work. Everson has even claimed that, in part, he got into film because he was describing his early sculptural work through time-based language. He has additionally stated that film allowed him to exercise formal qualities that he was attracted to in other media such as photography and painting. In Sound That, for example, one sees groups of men making very specific movements in relation to their jobs with The Cleveland Water Department. That being the case, the men in the film could be likened to figures in a Cezanne painting, which is to say somewhat functional as a means to create balance and rhythm in the overall composition.
But it’s not only the figures that create compositional harmony as there are moments in both films where Everson focuses solely on space, the artist focuses his attention on structural supports that form a diagonally inspired tableau. All of this is not to say; however, that there is not grace within this type of formal attention. It is rather an instance, having set up a situation akin to documentary reality, where the ‘agent’ (a term the artist often uses to describe himself) is able to activate performative elements in the men and their tasks. All of these formal devices help create a scenario where the people on screen demonstrate their expertise to the audience. It then becomes our concern to take note of the proficiency with which the men perform their jobs and, fundamentally, comprehend how they do things.
If Everson embraces moments of formalism through composed time and moving image, Thompson, on the other hand, takes a different approach. There are moments in Thompson’s performances, where entire scenes are full of activity as performers move in space, make sound and create a real time environment that feels incredibly active. This lively feeling, though, is simultaneously contrasted by the stagnancy of those very movements coming to an abrupt end without any advanced warning. This way of staging time also reflects the way the artist interprets aspects of the formal, which is to say that he plays with the meaning of the word in a more familiar way. In his performances with classical musicians, there is the idea of the formal that everyone understands (like dressing up for an important dinner) and not for its art historical meaning. Rather than demonstrate a knowledge of the foundations of art theory, he’s wanting to get it wrong on purpose in order to step outside an art about art dialogue. This rationale is contrasted of course by his appropriation of 19th century painting references. He plays with such contradictions, therefore, as a means to give his audience work and, ultimately, to turn the viewer into a co-worker whether his audience likes it or not.
In addition to Thompson’s interest in how artist and viewer become intertwined through work, Europe as an artistic destination for African Americans has long served as a phenomenon for much fruitful research. He’s written articles about the history of this type of cultural exchange and has interviewed several African American artists of his generation and the generations preceding him (an exemplary instance being an interview conducted in Rome a few years ago with the recently deceased Terry Adkins). Naturally, Thompson has also interviewed Everson and additionally spoken with him countless times about his experiences in living and working in Europe. One of the most intriguing comments Everson made on this topic was that when confronted with situations best described as culturally different from his own, his artistic response through film was to make it even more American. Perhaps when Kevin Everson speaks of making a work more American it is a sign, not of cultural aggression, but rather of total empathy in understanding the working class gestures he is so fond of portraying in his films.
A culturally rich Americanness, moreover, is also abundantly clear in the show’s title, which is an homage to Big Daddy Kane who originally sang the lyric. It’s a statement that one can take seriously or accept as tongue-in-cheek. Either way, it provides the necessary springboard from which Everson and Thompson navigate the textured layers of reality.
Kevin Jerome Everson, still from Sound That (2014)
Justin Randolph Thompson, sketch of scaffolding for Labor Vincit Omnia (2014)
Punch card for A Job Ain't Nothin' But Work
All images taken by Andrew Smaldone of installation views of Kevin Jerome Everson's Films Sound That & Fe26 (2014)