Kevin Jerome Everson has become known for his distinctive approach to film: frequently formal and often abstract, some parts scripted, other documentary, with an enduring focus on everyday black life and gestures. The critic Ernest Hardy seems to have expressed Everson’s aesthetic best when he noted how the artist “locates the grace within the grind.” But Everson is also exceptionally prolific and unfixed, making more than 120 short films since the late ’90s. The book on any such artist is be bound to more rigid than their work.
Everson’s excellent current show at Andrew Kreps Gallery, Century, is proof of that. Coming on the heels of his participation in the 2017 Whitney Biennial film program, the exhibit presents four of his short films, which take the moon, cars, and a surprising variety of automobile-demolishing machines and techniques as their subjects.
Nearly all of Everson’s previous work features black people in front of the camera. By contrast, none of the films at Andrew Kreps shows a single person. Knowing this, a viewer might understandably suspect a metaphorical intent in the artist’s non-human choices, especially the cars, which come from an ongoing series about the sorts of tossed-away vehicles found in anonymous junkyards. This reading is reinforced by a press release that notes the cars in the eponymously titled “Regal” (2015), “Century” (2012), and “Chevelle” (2011) were chosen for the “specific make, and model of each … as they were manufactured in part in Everson’s hometown of Mansfield, Ohio.”
Screening in a midsize, L-shaped room, the three films form a dispassionate, controlled gallery of destruction and transformation. Cars are crushed, cubed, dragged, hauled, and flattened in long, largely unbroken shots. (“Century”’s near seven minutes appear to consist of a single take.) Through such static shots, Everson heightens the sculptural, procedural ways the cars fall to ruin, punctuated by moments of snapping — if still undisturbed — intensity: pinched windows giving way in explosions after more than a few minutes in the compactor.
Critic Jason Farago in the New York Times calls the films “bluntly metaphorical projections,” but the scenes of destruction here are far too measured to be plainly metaphorical, especially for a filmmaker like Everson, who rejects making work for an audience, preferring instead to privilege his subjects — their skills, labor, and smarts. Farago’s statement appears too narrowly focused on Everson’s disembodied concerns instead of on the concerns that are embodied in the work. The cars are not a metaphorical stand-in for black folks (crushed cars=crushed people); they function more loosely, like a touchstone, raising subtle questions about loss, labor, presence, and the future.
Everson himself has suggested as much, as in a 2013 interview with IndieWire:
I wanted to make something where it didn’t have any people in it but was all about people. And all about black folk. My cousins made those cars. They worked at the Fisher Body General Motors Plant in Mansfield, Ohio, which was a stamping plant, making doors, side panels, hoods. They were forming it. Not putting it together. They’re made by automation but there’s some kind of hand and touch in it, so to speak.
The films are a cool study of deformation as well as an abstracted extension of Everson’s more human-centered work. They look at the aftermath of the grace and the grind — of the auto workers and the cars that bear their fingerprints. Embedded in the films might be a remotely hopeful question: what comes next?
The fourth work in the show represents something quite different and fascinating from Everson. “Rough and Unequal” (2017) is a pair of 16mm films, here projected digitally on opposite walls in their own room. They are tersely resonant, capturing the moon in extended and enlarged mirroring shots. One half focuses on the moon’s craggy surface, a monochrome image that fills the whole scene; framed much further away, the other projection fixes on the moon’s place in the darkness of space, opening as just a wan swatch of light. Slowly, darkness creeps into the former film as the camera pans towards a patch of black; in the latter, the same measured movement gathers more and more moon into the frame until it is nothing but, mirroring the opening of the other film as well the phases of the satellite. Absorptive and reflective, “Rough and Unequal” plays with the utility of restriction, the vision it lends and the views it cuts out.
Looking away from people and now even the planet, it may seem like Everson is embarking on a new chapter, but he isn’t. He’s simply expanding richly on what he’s long worked on, an oeuvre driven by rigorous craft and unceasing curiosity.
Kevin Jerome Everson: Century continues at Andrew Kreps Gallery (537 W 22nd St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 13.