New YorkThe Whitney Museum of American Art
December 15, 2018 – March 10, 2019
A view of a landscape opens with Kevin Beasley’s relief, The Reunion (2018), a heavy “slab” of guinea fowl feathers, Virginia soil, and cotton built up and suspended in polyurethane resin. A bucolic assemblage of fleshy pinks and sea foam green, bale straps and underbrush, its sanguine summer coloring marks cotton’s flowering period. The pastoral’s exceptionally blue Southern sky is punctuated by more than a dozen black du rags, a family, arranged in hard slant against a field; thin and lithe, their roots appear at once firmly planted and animated, tethered and uninhibited. On the reverse side, a bed of cotton negates the sculpture’s unsettling weight.
It was during a 2011 family reunion in Valentines, Virginia that Kevin Beasley first saw a cotton field. Planted on his own property (his family had leased the land to farmers that past season), the artist responded with immediate rage and curiosity towards the irresistibly tactile, seemingly innocuous remnant of America’s original sin. Bringing the raw cotton back to Yale, where he was earning an MFA at the time, Beasley began integrating it into his practice; eight years later, the fiber now lines the trio of large-scale slabs that introduce and inform this exhibition. Inspired by ninth-century-BCE Assyrian reliefs, Beasley invites visitors to observe both sides of The Reunion, Campus and The Acquisition (2018), amplifying them sculpturally. Their installation also exposes the slabs’ “support,” the mounds of cotton stuffed behind and between overalls and iconic Yale sweaters, pine needles and steel, lacing Beasley’s extensive research into institutional, racial and economic connections. Through means as direct as maps of the cotton and slave trades (the latter printed out from an atlas published by Yale University Press) dropped right into the resin mural, he guides us from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to Eli Whitney—a relation of Harry Payne Whitney who married Gertrude Vanderbilt, the founder of the Whitney Museum—and Elihu Yale who was, unsurprisingly, a slave trader. Possessing everything from kaftans to sound mixers, these slabs intricately map Beasley’s struggle both personally and historically. “That building [at Yale] wasn’t made for me,” the artist reminded an audience one Friday evening at the Whitney. Looking up at a slide of his family’s property, its harvested field still freckled with cotton, he asked, “How do I process this?”
Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 expedited the separation of cotton fiber from seed, significantly boosting production yield. The machine revolutionized the cotton industry, both expanding the need for slave labor across the American South and, inadvertently, causing the Civil War and the Great Migration. Beasley’s research naturally led to this historic technology, and eventually the purchase of a one-ton, broken down cotton gin motor off of eBay. He travelled to Alabama to meet the owner, Bobby, a middle-aged white man who drove a blood red Bronco—a visual cue that felt poignant to the artist. Indeed, like the material used in his slabs, the origin of this motor is significant: located less than 30 miles from Selma, it had been in operation from the forties to the early seventies—straight through the most violent years of the Jim Crow south and the Civil Rights Movement—earning a patina much more acrid than rust. Following the northward route of the Great Migration, Beasley brought the motor back to New Haven to be shown in his 2012 MFA thesis exhibition. Set against the glaring white walls of institutional space, the object remained unaltered and yet deeply transformed, a monumental witness as silent, “vivid and heavy” as Beasley’s relief slabs.
As a musician and sound artist, Beasley was intuitively interested in the sound of a cotton gin motor, most especially as Bobby was unable to articulate its hum. After graduation, Beasley brought it to Long Island City’s Prime Electrics where it has been disassembled, cleaned and successfully revived for this exhibition. Now displayed on the top floor of the Whitney as A view of a landscape: A cotton gin motor (2012–2018), the machinery—running smoothly on its original parts, day and night—is visually arresting even without manipulation. The brilliant turn of the artwork, however, is Beasley’s application of the motor’s original purpose, a technology of separation, against itself. Sound and vision are divorced through his installation, delegating each to two distinct spaces: the Chamber and Listening rooms. In the former, the cotton gin motor is housed in a soundproof glass vitrine made by Goppion (an Italian manufacturer of museum casing, they protect the Mona Lisa, Britain’s crown jewels and IBM’s quantum computer). Crowned with high-end mics and installed within such a sterile environment, the piece becomes a specimen, conjuring formaldehyde sharks, captivity, and quarantined science experiments alike. Juxtaposed against the installation’s impressive architecture, the earthen bulk of the old motor is jarring, most especially when one realizes—often with ears to the glass—how implausibly silenced it truly is. By so concentrating the audience’s sense of sight, sound is seen rather than heard; hopping mics, shivering wires and fluttering booms visually laminate the motor’s churning. Deep within, a stain of iron red lines the machinery’s strenuous rotation, indiscernibly emitting the same pitch and frequency that once resonated across the countryside of mid-century Alabama. The cotton gin motor has become a primary source—a field recording.
A dense tangle of wires above the vitrine exports the motor’s drone into an adjacent space, the Listening Room, where a modular synthesizer and mixer manipulate it. Unlike the Chamber Room, however, the senses are less concentrated here—the lively intricacy of the synth board’s patches are wholly distracting to the eye, as is the room’s mildly flamboyant lighting design. It takes most visitors awhile to stop taking photographs and sit down on one of the many benches, discreet subwoofers, through which the motor’s drone gently purrs. Here again, Beasley allows his audience to experience a less characteristic quality of sound—its physicality across space, even time. Resonating without decay, the motor’s churn becomes an oscillator, providing the synth a raw and unbroken source for Beasley’s undulating accents of deep bass and pink noise. In stark contrast to the austerity of the former room, the effect is lulling, even transcendent.
This dissonance between sight and sound is something of a leitmotif for this artist; works such as Phasing (Ebb) (2017) and Strange Fruit (2015), for instance, transfer or reflect a gallery’s ambient noise back onto their audiences. Within the Listening Room, however, the sculptural voice is extracted rather than echoed, giving the object terrific agency. Although the drone is fragmented along different amplifications across the space, an after-image of Beasley’s motor persists in the dim room, floating, its frequency suspended and vacillating. After 10 or 15 minutes, I noted how consistently the humming becomes an audile epoxy on its sundry audience: enveloping, deeply saturating, stilling. Variables are slipped slowly, selectively, into the mix, like pinecones or seashells into curing resin. Where the motor was once meant to separate and divide, here Beasley has lent it a new purpose by way of its own turbulent whirr—a poetic play on synthesis itself.
Moving fluidly between North/South, and more often between past/present, Beasley often refers to these artworks as “slippery” and, indeed, their poignancy is hung on such virgules. Much like the gracefully arranged family of The Reunion, the motor—forcibly silenced yet rapturously humming, arrested yet activated—speaks of both violence and resistance, from another time and our very own. By concentrating and then exploding our perception between these two spaces, the artist treats the installation itself as a three-dimensional relief, revealing to his audience the seed and the fiber, the foundation and the fabric that defines our American landscape.