Jefferson Pinder’s first Chicago exhibition, “Onyx Odyssey,” is ambitious and nuanced, shying away from depicting a singular black experience in favor of a fluctuating and ambiguous study of American society. Above the gallery’s entrance is Gauntlet, 2015, a cluster of charred police batons strung by invisible wires. On the other side of the room hangs POTUS, 2015, a white neon drawing of President Obama’s eyes. The gaze is as cool as a billboard, conjuring a dream where anyone can succeed. Between these works stands Monolith (Dream Catcher), 2015, a collection of African masks piled inside a one-way glass vitrine with blue light. The masks remain hard to see but are seductive, slipping between a nonspecific archetypal group and a tomb of individuated faces. Monolith (Dream Catcher) reflects Assimilated, 2009, another white neon outline of the human body rising from a pile of coal on the ground. Even in its ambivalent transcendence, a hierarchical juxtaposition of black and white remains.
Celebratory moments occur as well, as with Pinder’s two-channel cinematic interpretation of Du Bois’s 1911 historical pageant, The Star of Ethiopia. Here, a veiled woman in a white dress soars through Chicago’s South Side with euphoric ease. Or high above POTUS, projected through windows onto the street, a multi-channel video titled Countermeasure, 2015, loops with a break-dancing crew’s translation of gestures from Black Lives Matter protests. Unlike the vitrine, the collected gestures are accessible and unfixed, marking a collective refusal of injustice.