David McKenzie; Everything’s alright, nothing’s okay! at the Rosenwald Wolf Gallery

A young man in the nondescript uniform of his generation (trainers, tee shirt,…) dances in front of the automatic doors to a grocery store. His solo (captured on video) veers between street dancing and modern dance, then turns into the stumbling of a drunk. The slow motion, repeats and jump cuts of the video manipulation creates its own, sophisticated choreography. Edward and Me (2000) is the first of six videos in the Rosenwald Wolf Gallery‘s exhibition, David McKenzie; Everything’s alright, nothing’s okay! (through September 28). The video is smart and appealing – yet raises the question of what assumptions we’d make if we actually saw the young man, in any of these performance modes, in front of our neighborhood store.

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Dave McKenzie still from ‘Wilfred and Me’ (2012)

McKenzie, a 2000 grad of University of the Arts, works primarily in performance and video. One of the works in the exhibition, Babel (2006), documents a performance in which, microphone in mouth (literally in his mouth), McKenzie addresses the audience with incomprehensible speech, making signs with his free hand. He is insistent, repetitive, and clearly trying to communicate. It surely made his audience uncomfortable, even before he fell to the ground, got to his feet again, put the microphone back in his mouth and returned to the muffled speech. The location was not clear, but the audience was entirely white, and the sense I made of the work is that communication across racial lines is distorted, if even possible, with frustration on one side and discomfort on the other.

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Dave McKenzie still from ‘Edward and Me’ (2000)

I find myself in a room with Henry Kissinger is the opening line of Camera (2012). The first-person narration is conveyed with written text; the only sound is the ambient noise of the crowded room. The artist attends an event and would like to make a work out of the encounter. He muses on the residue of political acts; should he shake Kissinger’s hand? This short work, with it’s knowing reference to conceptual art and academic debates is considerably more than the sum of its parts; it is a poetic, rather than theoretical, exploration of the artist’s responsibility, the relationship of documentary to truth, and the truths to be found in other formats.

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Dave McKenzie still from recorded performance of ‘Babel’ (2006)

Attunment (2005) uses clips from The Bill Cosby Show (broadcast a decade before McKenzie was born, so it obviously cast a long shadow) juxtaposed to music from The Notorious B.I.G.’s album, Ready to Die (1994) to explore father/son relationships, expectations, and frictions. Wilfred and Me (2012) focuses a still camera on the profile of the artist as he tries to assimilate the news that Magic Johnson is HIV positive, which shatters a widely-held image of black masculinity and pride. If he repeats the news often enough will it finally make sense? The repetition is a function of his resistance, the potency of Magic Johnson’s image, and the need for heroes.

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Dave McKenzie still from ‘Attunement’ (2005), based on footage from ‘The Bill Cosby Show’

McKenzie’s sense of timing is more finely-tuned than that of many artists working in video. His pieces are short (other than the filmed performance, none is longer than seven and a half minutes), and more powerful for that; he leaves the viewers wanting more. The artist will be speaking at University of the Arts on Thursday, September 27, at 1:00 pm in Anderson Hall.