LOS ANGELES — “You’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know / From years and years of TV shows / The hurting thing, the hidden pain / Was written and bitten into your veins,” chants artist Ulysses Jenkins in his 1978 video performance, “Mass of Images.” Considered to be one of the first video works by a Black American artist, Jenkins appears in the piece, a lanky figure dressed in a plastic mask, dark sunglasses, and an American flag scarf. On a stage, he is joined by a towering stack of televisions. This scene is intercut with examples of racist imagery from American films and TV, including white actors donning blackface and shallow caricatures of Black life. The video ends with him wielding a sledgehammer in an attempt to smash the televisions to smithereens. But he stalls, unable to swing. “They won’t let me.” He turns his attention to the camera and repeats his refrain, a final reminder to the viewer before the screen goes dark.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Jenkins, a professor at University of California, Irvine, is the subject of Without Your Interpretation, the first career retrospective dedicated to the influential video artist whose collaborative works integrate performance, poetry, music, history, surrealism and more. On view at the Hammer Museum following its debut at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, last year, the solo exhibition is curated by Erin Christovale and Meg Onli, and contextualizes 50 years of performances, videos, public broadcasts, writing, and other media.
Jenkins was trained as a painter and muralist before he made the switch to video (he was one of the many artists who participated in the historic “Great Wall of Los Angeles”; led by artist Judy Baca, the half-mile-long mural depicts the history of California — highlighting Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian figures and narratives). In the early 1970s, the Sony Portapak became the first portable consumer video camera, and artists like Jenkins were intrigued by the technology’s ability to circumvent and challenge mainstream media. After attending a Portapak workshop, he says he was hit with the “video jones.” He went on to study video and performance at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) later that decade, where he was taught by Betye Saar and Charles White (fellow students included David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall).
During this time, artists like Saar and White were ignored by mainstream art institutions, who avoided supporting those who weren’t white and based on the East Coast. As for local galleries, their own entrenched racism and classism proved to be a hurdle for Black and brown artists in search of exhibition opportunities. These encounters spurred Black artists like Jenkins to create their own path towards creative fulfillment, initiating spaces like Brockman Gallery and Othervisions Studio, and informal collectives like Studio Z, which brought together Hammons, Senga Nengudi, Maren Hassinger, and Barbara McCullough. Jenkins orbited their circle and would go on to work closely with Nengudi, Hassinger, and others. These actions foregrounded the power of creating the conditions you need, a theme Jenkins would return to throughout his career.
Fascinated by the radical uses of video, Jenkins approached the camera as “a scalpel,” as theorist Alessandra Raengo notes in the exhibition catalogue, using it to explore the material and philosophical textures of Black life. The Hammer exhibition, organized into four sections with titles taken from Jenkins’s 1990 memoir, guides us through the evolution of Jenkins’s practice, from his early documentaries focused on preserving Black cultural production, like Remnants of the Watts Festival (1972-73/1980) and Momentous Occasions: In The Spirit of Charles White (1977/1982), to work like Dream City (1983), a video companion to a 24-hour performance organized by Jenkins in response to the Reagan presidency. A polychromatic deluge of sound and image, the five-minute short free associates between footage of the performances rendered in tints of green and red and shots of LA. (A note that you can currently stream several of these videos in a series on Criterion.) Interspersed between the various viewing rooms and monitors at the Hammer are ephemera from Jenkins’s archive including storyboards, choreography notes, and lyrics.
Viewing his work in chronological order allows you to witness the sharpening of Jenkins’s concerns and methods. Jenkins’s videos do more than talk back to a racist screen. He questions image-making in general, exploring how media constricts and/or expands our ideas of Blackness, multiculturalism, and more. In the late ’70s, he coined the phrase doggereal, a play on doggerel, defined as an irregular variation in a verse or rhyme. For Jenkins, doggereal acknowledges the absurdities and disruptions of existence, especially as it pertains to the lived realities of oppressed peoples. “Inconsequential Doggereal” (1981) splices together TV clips, found audio, fictional sequences, and animation to explore the psychic toll of our media-saturated world. You can see the legacy of Jenkins in the kinetic video style of Arthur Jafa, Kahlil Joseph, and Martine Syms, a purge of images and sounds that makes way for alternative histories and narratives.
What stands out most to me about Jenkins’s practice is his unwavering belief in creating your own forms of art and storytelling. His images jam signals, finding space to broadcast pirate frequencies that widen our sense of time and space. Without Your Interpretation transmits you to other worlds, making us question what we’re consuming through our computers, phones, and other technological tools.
Ulysses Jenkins: Without Your Interpretation continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood, Los Angeles) through May 15. The exhibition was curated by Erin Christovale and Meg Onli.
Editor’s Note: This article was made possible by a grant from the Sam Francis Foundation.