by Clay Palmer
For a show with only four pieces, Jefferson Pinder’s Thin Skin/Shock Layer is anything but sparse in terms of content. The layering of social critique, historical references, and multiple mediums lends for a densely-packed exhibition that introduces a jarring amount of information to absorb. Major themes that these works present include the juxtaposition of individuality and the common human experience, past and present, and regress and progress.
Initially when entering the gallery, the immediate inclination was to gravitate towards Juke, a row of ten television monitors displaying video portraits of African American men and women of various ages against a plain white background. Each video is paired with a set of headphones so that the viewer can hear the music that each person is lip-synching. The list of songs, all by white artists, include tracks like Space Oddity by David Bowie and Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell. This combination of black bodies and white voices is married with a lyrical content in each chosen song that evokes an awareness of the common struggle that all humans share. This arrangement of a specific versus a shared experience sparks questions about how to balance the individual’s perception and struggles with a collective awareness of what it means to be human and the concerns thereof.
The two most physically tangible pieces in the gallery are the title piece, Thin Skin/Shock Layer, a found-object quilt cobbled together out of the remains of painted street lines, and Funknik, a recreation of the Russian space probe Sputnik out of found material with two speakers encased in its central globe-like structure that pulse with layered music. While the specificity of the materials with which these sculptures are created might escape the notice of the passive viewer, their intent as objects denoting an interest in the way relics of the past affect the future is easily recognizable.
The highlight of the exhibition is Pinder’s most recent video entitled Sonic Boom. The video consists of a bright red 1977 Oldsmobile (previously owned by a veteran) that is pushed down the street into the parking lot of a closed-down military hospital while Pinder steers. Accompanying this sort of surrogate casket is a second line brass band that plays as it enters the parking lot. Surrounded by a crowd, Pinder leaves the scene for a moment and returns dressed in a well-worn crash suit and helmet often worn by racecar drivers while the car is placed on four jacks and its wheels are removed. After the wheels are removed, Pinder enters the car from the passenger side, settles into the driver’s seat, and proceeds to run the engine to exhaustion, ending in the radiator failing and the mechanics of the car catching fire. Pinder exits the vehicle and leaves the scene.
The implications of this video in terms of identity, racial self-awareness, and frustration with society are highly layered and complex. In terms of explorations of identity, the vehicle is an embodiment of the identity of the veteran. The act of pushing this vehicle to exhaustion in a sort of pseudo-space race in the parking lot of a closed military hospital is in many ways a form of ironic contrast: the push towards a technologically advanced future among the stars while still experiencing difficult social problems at home on Earth. However, this is not to say that Pinder’s own identity as an African-American artist is not wrapped up within the narrative of Sonic Boom. The carefully-chosen poses and the confidence with which Pinder moves around the vehicle exhibits an awareness and comfort with who he is as an African-American man while still engaging with issues that affect American society as a whole.
The layering of these narratives and the blurring and intersection of meaning that occurs in Pinder’s work allow him to show the complex inner workings of the relationship between the individual and society. The use of the body in Pinder’s video work serves as a nexus for various conversations regarding identity, race, community and history and allows them to take place simultaneously. The result is a body of work that fosters immediate visual impact, and yet needs multiple viewings and a meditative digestion to appreciate fully in its nuance.
Jefferson Pinder: Thin Skin/Shock Layer is on view at the Martha and Robert Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art on the University of Memphis campus through March 8, 2019.
Clay Palmer is an MFA candidate in Painting at the University of Memphis and received his BFA in Studio Art from the University of Tennessee at Martin in 2017.