Body of work: Brown offers an object-ive view

Still from Julia Brown's video, American Vernacular.
Still from Julia Brown's video, American Vernacular.

“He used me.” Whether swindled by a crook like Bernie Madoff or dumped by a spouse for a younger lover, there is nothing quite so humiliating as having one’s’ thoughts, emotions, and well-being disregarded in the interest of someone else’s self-advancement.

Unfortunately, Americans have a long history of de-humanizing others, beginning with slavery and continuing through the promotion of stereotyped identities to sell products (think Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben). Exposing such willful objectification is the spur for Julia Brown’s short video, American Vernacular, currently screening at the Niche in the Fine Arts Library.

The final work in UVA art prof. Lydia Moyer’s series highlighting women directors who use performance in their pieces, American Vernacular comprises six vignettes in which humans serve as literally nothing more than useful objects. The video opens with a scene of an old-fashioned cast-iron stove with a pewter pot beneath it and a red brick wall in the background. It’s an iconic slice of Americana until, suddenly, an African-American woman slides horizontally into the shot, her head coming to rest upturned on the stovetop as sizzling ensues. She remains expressionless, despite the disturbing snaps and pops, until she again slides out of the frame.

Subsequent scenes involve a white woman doorstop, a black human perfume bottle, a black woman moving white legs like a butter churn, a white woman’s head as soap, and a black arm soupspoon. The precise meaning of Brown’s racial relationships is elusive, but the human subjugation in each chapter is surreal, disconcerting, and sometimes uncomfortably amusing.

Trained as a painter, Brown sets up each scene with an eye to how light and every detail contributes to the overall composition. For example, in the episode in which a white woman primps while an African-American woman sits poised and motionless, waiting to spout perfume like a fountain, a mirror beautifully reflects the curve of the human bottle’s back. Brown also masterfully uses her palette to thread the scenes together with repeated use of pastel shades, dark red, and pewter grey.

Unlike several series artists who regard the camera as simply a recording device, Brown takes advantage of video’s cinematic possibilities. She varies the camera’s angle with each vignette and uses its subtle movement to enhance several scenes. Brown’s creative soundtrack and skilled synching also contribute to American Vernacular’s success.

Visually arresting and provocative, American Vernacular prods viewers to think again about privilege and human consumption.

Julia Brown’s video, American Vernacular, is on view through May 31 at The Niche in the Fine Arts Library. Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library, Bayly Dr. (across from the Architecture School). For more information, visit the Niche website.