Kevin Everson looks to the night sky for comment on history

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Kevin Everson’s “Rough and Unequal” is on exhibit at The Fralin Museum of Art through April 16. His work is also featured in the Whitney Biennial 2017 that begins on March 17. Image courtesy of the artist Kevin Everson’s “Rough and Unequal” is on exhibit at The Fralin Museum of Art through April 16. His work is also featured in the Whitney Biennial 2017 that begins on March 17. Image courtesy of the artist

It’s a busy, blustery Tuesday on Grounds. Outside The Fralin Museum of Art, UVA students rush by in droves, pulling overcoats tight against the wind. Inside, I stand in darkness staring at craters on the moon. The air is hot and loud, filled by the whir and clank of unsteady projectors shining on gallery walls. Two films, shot on 16mm, broadcast two different sides of the moon.

In one, darkness moves slowly across lumps and pockmarks on a surface the color of aged newspaper. Shadows appear as the moon rotates slowly; when the craters vanish, I feel lost in space. In another, the moon looks like black-and-white fuzz, a dim shadowscape making slow, creeping passage. I’d believe you if you told me the inarticulate surface was a tree trunk or dimpled thigh. Like slow-moving paintings, these films manage to simultaneously abstract the meaning of a simple subject while bridging a gap of 238,900 miles.

That’s the magic of celebrated filmmaker and UVA professor Kevin Everson. He’s known for making experimental films, many of which are shot on single rolls of 16mm film, and most of which depict working-class African-Americans in everyday situations.

As the artist’s website explains, “The subject matter is the gestures or tasks caused by certain conditions in the lives of working-class African-Americans and other people of African descent.” Those inciting conditions, the website continues, are “usually physical, social-economic circumstances or weather.”

Everson captures real life—unsung, unvarnished, mostly unscripted—and extrapolates it through the tactile trappings of film.

“You know, I’m a trained photographer, sculptor, printmaker and all that kind of stuff,” Everson says. “I like the materialities of art-making.” He explains that his average point of departure is “something that will last 11 minutes”—the length of a 400′ magazine of 16mm film. Then he abstracts his subjects. “It’s the whole idea of these things becoming two dimensional, like paintings, and changing every second the way films change—slowly.”

With eight feature-length films and more than 120 shorts to his name, Everson’s award-winning work has earned him Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, a place at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, Sundance Film Festival, the International Film Festival Rotterdam and elsewhere. Everson rarely exhibits his work in Charlottesville outside the annual Virginia Film Festival. But in the fall of 2015, The Fralin commissioned Everson to create something new.

“I didn’t want to put African-Americans up on the wall,” he says. “I wanted to use what the university had to make a film with. So the film could only be made with an object that was on campus. And thinking about the history of [this place], I basically wanted to turn my back on the university. And just look up.”

Inspired by a former student, Everson decided to use UVA’s McCormick Observatory telescope and film the moon. He built a specific camera for the task, spending many long nights staring at the stars. The process itself took more than a year, accounting for weather, humidity and the fact that he only shot during quarter- and half-moon phases. The title of the resulting exhibition, “Rough and Unequal,” comes from Galileo’s description of the moon, he says, “which is probably the description of the university’s relationship to people of color since its inception.”

As a formalist, he says, he keeps his film concepts simple, emphasizing instead how art is made. Because “I like taking a view of things we don’t see,” Everson says. “Seeing the moon is amazing. Seeing it up close is an experience I want people to have. Like, we are not alone.” He laughs. “As Americans we are very self-centered,” he says. “And there are tons of hierarchies: culture, race, religion and class.”

“Rough and Unequal” reminds us that we are just individual blips in the universe. “We see the moon every night, but once you get close to it, you’re like, ‘Man, that’s the real deal,” he says.

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