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Elle Pérez. Hobbes, 2015/2018. Archival Pigment Print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 × 2 inches (112.71 × 78.74 × 5.08 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.

“I always forget that I can use my actual life in my work,” Elle Pérez says to me, in the kitchen of their live-work studio space in Brooklyn. Pérez is putting together lunch—a salad, sauteed broccoli, and a rosy slab of perfectly seared salmon—while their cat bats a paw over my tape recorder. In Pérez’s earlier practice, making art was often about being in the right place at the right time: a queer sanctuary in Tennessee; backstage at nightclubs and the ballroom scene; ringside at entertainment-wrestling matches in the Bronx. “But it’s about looking at what’s closest to you,” Pérez continues. “Look under your nose! Just look down!” Their most recent body of work, in contrast to the site-specific shoots they’ve worked with before, considers how the themes and formal qualities that interest them are embedded in the fabric of ordinary life.

Elle Pérez. Water body, 2016/2018. Archival Pigment print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 inches (112.71 × 78.74 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.

“Pérez is motivated by more than representation.”

Pérez’s words might surprise viewers first encountering the young Puerto-Rican American photographer’s work. Their images—intimately wrought slices of life and portraits of the artist’s friends and community—can appear effortless and naturalistic, akin to documentary photography. Yet Pérez is motivated by more than representation. Carefully staged, and often the result of collaboration between photographer and subject, their work depicts the undercurrents of language, expression, and performance that transform us into who we constantly seek to become. In an open conversation, centered on the subject, Pérez creates portraits that illuminate both character and agency.

Elle Pérez. Tattoo Elizabeth, 2016/2018Digital Silver Gelatin print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 inches (112.71 × 78.74 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.


In one black-and-white photograph, a person lies on a couch, their face turned away from the camera. Outside of the frame, someone straddles their back, knees bent. The focal point of the image is the first person’s hand, which curls protectively around the edge of a pillow. It’s a snapshot of intimate, unknowable grace: the subject’s face turned away, fingers clenched in anticipation of pleasure or pain. It’s also a moment, Pérez reveals to me, of physical transformation. Barely visible on one freckled shoulder is a fresh stick-and-poke tattoo: a pair of initials. Easily unnoticed by a casual observer, the tattoo is the entire point of the photograph. It moves the image from a depiction of physical closeness to an invitation to a conversation about body modification, marking, and community.

Elle Pérez. Binder, 2015/2018. Archival Pigment print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 inches (112.71 × 78.74 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.


In this moment—altering, pushing, and manipulating the body—the idea of self-expression enters the work. The theme of expression through performance, especially in conjunction with the body and its modification, runs through Pérez’s work. In one of Pérez’s best-known photographs, Binder, the eponymous garment hangs on a white wire hanger against the backdrop of an empty shower stall. Thinned with age and darkened by wear, the binder takes on a presence of its own. Weighted with the aura of the body, it becomes a stand-in for not only the body but also its effect on the body: constriction, transformation, presentation. Paradoxically, it’s through this restrictive binding that gender fluidity can be performed. As viewers, we sense the body’s desire in this image, hovering like a ghost.

Elle Pérez. Ian, 2017/18. Archival Pigment print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 inches (112.71 × 78.74 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.

“A constant current within Pérez’s work is an exploration of physical intensity.”

“I’m always drawn to intensity. I channel my own desire for intensity that comes out in the work,” Pérez tells me. This intensity takes many forms, including strong emotions: some of Pérez’s portraits, especially those that originate from their relationship to the sitter, can feel almost unbearably close, as though viewers are eavesdropping on a private conversation between lovers or friends. Yet a constant current within Pérez’s work is an exploration of physical intensity—specifically, the idea of pushing the body to its limits to find a kind of self-expression.

Elle Pérez. untitled (junior), 2014/2018.  Digital Silver Gelatin print; 34 × 28 inches (86.36 × 71.12 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.

“The image’s character changes once more, suggesting a collaboration within a performance. . .”

Pérez’s photographs of entertainment wrestlers in the Bronx exemplify this theme. In this sport, each bout is meticulously choreographed, each move rehearsed. Out of these practices, a fight scene emerges. Pérez’s images of these wrestlers convey an exquisite balance of tenderness and violence. In Untitled (Junior) (2014/2018), a wrestler on his back has his eyes closed and his hands crossed over the foot that steps on his neck. If one ignores the foot (and the figure to which it belongs), the subject seems nearly angelic—long eyelashes and tight curls standing out sharply in the photograph’s wide focus—and in peaceful repose. Yet the foot turns the composition toward violence and asks the viewer to consider the uses of pain.

Looking closer, one can see that the wrestler’s hand is holding the foot that steps upon his neck; his fingers are fanned across it, as in a gesture of support. Now the image’s character changes once more, suggesting a collaboration within a performance, a gesture shared between two actors. One wonders what dialogue they had, to get to this place.

Elle Pérez. t, 2018. Digital Silver Gelatin print; 20 × 14 inches (50.80 × 35.56 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.

My lunchtime conversation with Pérez turns to how one deals with the fact of a body, not just in art but also in life. When I mention that I’ve recently rediscovered running, Pérez immediately relates to this, describing a newfound Muay Thai practice. “It’s been really nice to push my body through something as intense as Muay Thai,” they tell me. “It’s not about aggression, which I really appreciate.” Rather, Pérez explains, it’s about that same desire for intensity being channeled into a productive, healing place.

Elle Pérez. Soft Stone, 2015/2018. Digital Silver Gelatin print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 inches (112.71 × 78.74 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.

As in Binder (2015/2018) sometimes the body takes other forms. In the photograph titled Soft Stone (2015/2018), two rocks, nestled together, jut out of water, appearing like phalluses; it’s an image that’s twinned in another photograph, a self-portrait for you (2016/2018). Sometimes, artifacts of lived experience are written on the body, like surgery scars, piercings, and tattoos. These marks are evidence of the agency of the body.

Elle Pérez. a self portrait for you, 2016/2018. Archival Pigment Print; 44 3⁄8 × 31 × 2 inches (112.71 × 78.74 × 5.08 cm).  Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.

As Pérez prepares a series of work for inclusion in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, they describe a group of photographs that display a quiet, subtle intensity. The new work includes images that thoroughly engage with the body—including a homage to Catherine Opie’s depictions of sadomasochism—and several portraits, composed with the care and collaboration with their subjects that’s a hallmark of Pérez’s practice. Says Pérez, “This is a process of following.” It is a process of allowing the subject to guide the work, without the work speaking in place of the subject. It is a process of intensely looking at the people, places, and objects that surround us and the choices that we all make, to move ever closer to who we wish to become.

Larissa Pham contributed text to Pérez’s exhibition In Bloom, March 1-April 8, 2018 at 47 Canal, which can be read here. Watch the New York Close Up episode, “Elle Pérez Works Between the Frame” for more insight into their photography practice.

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Zanele Muholi, describing their mobile studios in Daveyton, South Africa. Production still from the Extended Play episode, “Zanele Muholi: Mobile Studios.” © Art21, Inc. 2019.


“It’s my own way of writing South African LGBTI history. So I don’t want to be limited by anything. I don’t want to be in any studio. I want to be unplugged.”

In a new film from our Extended Play series, visual activist Zanele Muholi explains the impetus behind creating what they call “mobile studios” to photograph members of the LGBTI community in South Africa. Freed from the limitations of a single studio space, Muholi travels to the homes and community spaces shared by the people depicted in their photographs. As a way to create work in which the participants feel most comfortable, these mobile studios allow Muholi to empower those around them.

This is the second in a series of five new Art21 films premiering throughout Spring/Summer 2019.

Watch now!
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Group Summer Institute Participants, the inaugural event of the annual Art21 Educators program. Production still from the Art21 Specials series, “Art21 Educators.” © Art21, Inc. 2019.

Art21 is proud to announce the twelve educators that will join the incoming ninth cohort of Art21 Educators. These individuals come from rural and urban communities, teach a variety of grades, and, with our first-ever participant to reside in Australia, represent regions from across the globe.

As a year-long intensive experience, the Art21 Educators program encourages teachers to consider new ways that contemporary art can support teaching and learning both in the arts and other disciplines.

We are excited to welcome this group of educators into the Art21 Educator community!

2019–20 Art21 Educators Cohort

Lisa Becker
John Marshall High School, Saint Charles, MN

Jennifer Bockerman
Moore Middle School, Lincoln, NE

Tobacco Brown
ArtUp, Memphis, TN

Sarah Ceurvorst
The Ellis School, Lower School, Pittsburgh, PA

Elizabeth Denneau
Marana High School, Tucson, AZ

Kayleigh Gillies
Isidore Newman School, New Orleans, LA

Mary Goldthwaite-Gagne
Contoocook Valley Regional High School, Peterborough, NH

Kate Jellinghaus
Westwood High School, Roslindale, MA

Sarah Kolker
Mural Arts, Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA

Andrea Mancuso
Nichols School, Buffalo, NY

Jennie Maydew
Achievement First Bushwick Middle School, Brooklyn, NY

Birra-li Ward
Woodleigh School, Victoria, Australia

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Caitlin Cherry. Ultraviolet Ultimatum Leviathan, 2019. Installation view of Caitlin Cherry: Threadripper, January 12, 2019 – February 9, 2019, Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Oil on canvas with pencil, 57×101 inches (144.8×256.5cm). Photo: Michael Underwood.

 

First published in 1985, the essay by Donna Haraway known as the “Cyborg Manifesto” made waves by criticizing the gender essentialism and identity politics of feminism and encouraging people to unite with others based on affinity. It proposes the symbol of the cyborg as a rejection of boundaries “unfaithful to their origins” and that this symbol can help to free people from racist, male-dominated capitalism.¹ The essay also purports that the “boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.”²

In the past year, the essay’s post-human politics have heavily influenced my artistic practice, particularly as I build the narratives of the Black female tri-brid figures (merging human, animal, and machine) that I call leviathans, after the mythological sea monsters of Jewish folklore. These painted leviathans are filtered through the backlit glow and glare of current technology, media, and modes of representation—three decades after Haraway created “Manifesto”—but they attempt to illustrate her proposed world of transgressed boundaries and potent fusions.

Caitlin Cherry. Wraith Stealth Leviathan (The Fibonaughti Sequence), 2018. Installation view of Caitlin Cherry: Dirtypower, Providence College Galleries (PC–G). Oil on canvas, 182.8 x 182.8 cm. Image courtesy of PC–G. Photo: Scott Alario.


“Our Best Machines Are Made of Sunshine”

Haraway breaks down the boundaries between human and animal, organism and machine, and the nonphysical and the physical. “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals—electromagnetic waves, a section of spectrum. And these machines are eminently portable—a matter of immense human paint in Detroit and Singapore.”3 Now, in the 2010s, the era of the handheld smart device, our relationship to liquid crystal display (LCD) screens is intimate and fetishistic. For my paintings, I developed a color palette to convey the unpredictable viral behavior of iridescence in a malfunctioning screen: the overexposed inversion of color when a viewer is not positioned optimally in relation to the screen to view its content. My leviathans are married to the technology that my reference material is sourced from (the camera), combined with the medium where I see the reference (smartphone, laptop screen) and who they are as contemporary Black American women, before I transform their images by my style. They are cyborgs of all three of Haraway’s boundary analyses. The “Cyborg Manifesto” charts paradigmatic shifts, from modern to postmodern epistemology. My work exists between two relationships described in the chart: Integrity/Surface and Representation/Simulation.

Caitlin Cherry. Chaos Compressorhead Leviathan, 2018. Installation view of Caitlin Cherry: Dirtypower, Providence College Galleries (PC–G). Oil on canvas, 176.5×218.4cm. Image courtesy of PC–G. Photo: Scott Alario.


Integrity/Surface

An LCD screen is visually immaculate. However, one can break its simulation and reveal its inner world by using a digital camera to take a photo of the screen; the product reveals a representation of a representation. The image degrades into a pattern of streaks that interrupts the image like a digital water ripple. This moiré pattern occurs when the scanning pattern recognition in the camera is misaligned by the pattern of liquid crystals on the screen; liquid crystals are hybrids between solid and fluid states of matter. With oil paint, I render this digital misunderstanding as dark and light bands that veil the primary composition of the painting and create an overlaid secondary composition. The paintings are made of two palettes, of simultaneous over- and underexposure: the metaphor of the plight of Black women in mass media. I affectionately refer to this overlay with the term pictorial spaceX, to evoke the paradigmatic shift of the picture plane of a painting as a screen. The light and dark banding system does not represent the sun streaking through some architecture but rather a backlit determinant.

Caitlin Cherry. Sapiosexual Leviathan, 2018. Installation view of Caitlin Cherry: Dirtypower, December 5, 2018 – March 2, 2019, Providence College Galleries (PC–G). Oil on canvas, 72 ½ x 72 ½ inches (184.2 x 184.2 cm) Installation view image courtesy PC–G. Photo: Scott Alario.


Representation/Simulation

My painted leviathans originate from images of Black American women who participate on some level in the sex industry: porn stars, Instagram models, C-list rappers, and A-list celebrities with histories as exotic dancers. Their livelihoods are least dependent on the whims of white popular culture and as a result they have crafted identities or brands that are extreme and unapologetically Black. These women decorate themselves with multicolor wigs and visible tattoos once deemed too “ratchet” for professional contexts but have now been appropriated by young white urbanites working in creative industries. The women have enhanced their bodies through plastic surgery and have become, in a way, more than human. These women buy into a liberated, sexualized image that takes the stereotype of the hyper-sexualized Black woman to its limits. Nevertheless, they are successful and—like Blac Chyna and Cardi B, whose net values are in the millions—capitalize on a lineage that recalls the aggressive, hardcore style of Lil Kim, the popular rapper of the late 1990s and 2000s. Together these Black women have fundamentally changed beauty trends, reaching outside the Black community to become global cultural exports. Within the Black community, their rise to stardom is a vice for their potential to influence young Black girls away from supposedly more dignified and respectable paths. I refer to and paint these women to elevate them to the highest levels of grace and grandeur that can be achieved through the revered medium of oil paint. Though the careers of these women may be short explosions, oil paintings have long lifespans.

“When my identity is mistaken for that of my subjects, our personal histories are flattened.”

At my art openings, I have been mistakenly identified as the women in my paintings by gallery-goers, curators, and critics, which risks turning my investigative practice into a series of self-portraits. Since painters tend to leave bits of themselves in their works, this is not an unfounded observation, but it is inaccurate. Yet it furthers the tension between representation and simulation that I tackle in the work. As a curvaceous Black woman with mint-green hair and visible tattoos, I share aesthetic characteristics with these women, and I take observations of these affinities as compliments. But I have never been a dancer, rapper, or model; I am a visual artist and a professor. When my identity is mistaken for that of my subjects, our personal histories are flattened. I am interested in the mythmaking, insofar as it helps to break simple stereotypes and to complicate who Black women are or might become.

Caitlin Cherry. Innversion, 2019. Installation view of Caitlin Cherry: The Armory Show (Focus Section), March 6, 2019 – March 10, 2019, Luce Gallery, Turin, Italy. Oil on canvas, 69 ½ x 86 inches (176.5 x 218.4cm)


Mythmaking

In the “Manifesto,” Haraway defers to the professor and postcolonial feminist theorist, Chela Sandoval, who describes the condition of being a Black woman as being at the “bottom of a cascade of negative identities, left out of the privileged oppressed authorial categories called women and blacks.”6 We who are Black women essentially transgress femininity and Blackness. Black women end up fused to an entirely new identity. Black womanhood is an unsolvable equation that reminds me of the “three-body problem” of physics.5 In this problem, three celestial bodies in trajectory with one another will forever have unpredictable paths. If two of these bodies find balance, the third will unexpectedly yank the first two out of sync, and their orbit becomes chaotic once again. The three bodies can easily be seen as metaphors for the identities of Blackness, womanhood, and class—identities that can never merge nor fully be oppositional or unified forces. This metaphor could be helpful to animate the socioeconomic tension of the buzzword intersectionality, particularly when applied to the identity and the culture of Black women. This metaphor proposes post-intersectionality, assuming that the three identifiers have positions that are expected to cross each other. But in contrast, and in reality, they are in a constant, chaotic recalibration between each other, perpetually reshaping the definition of each identifier.


Conclusion

Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” has a persistent influence on us humans/aliens who are fans of futurism, left accelerationism, and cyberfeminism. But it also has a deep effect on anyone frustrated with the snail’s pace of feminist progress in America. Since the essay’s publication in the 1980s, the text remains quite relevant despite technological advancements in society. It has also ignited interest among a younger generation of scholars and thinkers.6 Although my artistic practice has a plethora of influences and an encyclopedia of content, I feel that none are as nourishing as the “Cyborg Manifesto.”7

[1] Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Monoskop, page 68. [2] Haraway, pg66. [3] Haraway, pg70. [4] Haraway, pg73. [5] The three-body problem also inspired the title and plot of a science-fiction novel by Cixin Liu. [6] Notably, the feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks published Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation, which draws influence from Haraway’s essay, and a subsequent Xenofeminism book by Cuboniks member Helen Hester was available in early 2018. [7] I am indebted to the Black writers, curators, and cultural producers Aria Dean, Legacy Russell, and Jennifer C. Nash.

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Fifth grade new media artist. Image provided by the author.

As a choice-based educator, I expect my students to generate artistic ideas on their own. Understandably, this can be a very challenging task for many of them. My lesson about the body is intended to inspire my students to begin an artistic investigation that engages and excites them. I teach this unit to my elementary students who are between the ages of six and eleven, but this theme can be modified to suit students of any age.

“Young students because they still have the profound desire to make-believe, to tell stories, to adorn, to dress up, and to play.”

The body is a great starting point for teaching art to young students because they still have the profound desire to make-believe, to tell stories, to adorn, to dress up, and to play. I think that if a group of students is left alone in an art studio with an assortment of colorful papers, scissors, and tape, the papers will inevitably be transformed into costumes taped onto their little bodies. This unit harnesses the penchant for play that my students naturally have in the art studio. Sharing videos and images of more established artists who use similar techniques helps to validate the students’ direction, confirming that what they are making is indeed art.

I start the unit with a short discussion about art in relation to the body, prompted by the following questions:

What can we create that can be worn on the body?

What can we create that can be made with the body?

What can we create that can be about the body?

Second grade artists. Image provided by the author.

“I ask them to consider ways in which the body might lead to an interesting idea.”

I consider these questions to be invitations to artmaking. I tell my students that they don’t have to use the body in their ideas. I ask them to consider ways in which the body might lead to an interesting idea, and I hope that they will stumble upon ideas either during our discussion or during their time experimenting with materials in the studio.

Nick Cave, performing a “Soundsuit,” 2016. Production still from the Art in the Twenty First Century Season 8 episode, “Chicago.” © Art21, Inc. 2016.

We look at and discuss the works of various artists. One example is Cyrus Kabiru and how he uses recycled objects to make wearable sculptures. Since we also have recycled objects in our studio, how can we create something with those materials that we can wear? We analyze the work of Nick Cave: what materials are utilized in his soundsuits, and why do those materials work well for his artistic ideas? Like Cindy Sherman, who transforms her body into a wide cast of different characters, how can we become transformed by our art? As we discuss these artists and images of their works, the students generate two lists in their sketchbooks. The first lists are of possible materials for this artmaking investigation, prompted by asking: what materials in our studio can be used to make something that can be worn on the body? These lists contain items like painted papers, feathers, beads, yarn, and cardboard. The second lists are composed of artistic ideas that the students have already begun to envision, like ideas for jewelry, hats, capes, and masks. We are always discussing the fact that artists generate ideas and that they must choose the materials that work best for their ideas.

Cindy Sherman in front of her staged self portrait. Production still from the Art in the Twenty First Century Season 5 episode, “Transformation.” © Art21, Inc. 2009.

“With younger students, ideas are often driven by interaction with materials that are laid out before them.”

My students are allowed time to experiment with materials and techniques as they seek an idea that excites them. Giving them this time encourages organic inspiration. In our open studio, there is always a variety of two- and three-dimensional materials available to choose from. Especially with younger students, ideas are often driven by interaction with materials that are laid out before them; the materials become the inspiration for the idea. Each section of the room is designated for a different group of materials, and the students know how to access those materials. For example, if a student needs yarn, fabric, and beads for their idea, they know that they would find those materials in our fiber studio. After students have had a chance to experiment with materials, they can work alone or with a team of collaborators, often with little guidance from me.

Fifth grader working with plaster. Image provided by the author.

For students who struggle to generate ideas, simple creative prompts about the body can guide our ideation conversation while providing the opportunity for very divergent outcomes. (Two examples: What are we interested in creating that is related to the body? What materials can we use in order to create something that is related to the body?) The students should also be able to communicate how they think their idea connects to the prompt.

Creative Growth Art Center, artist on stage at the annual runway event “Beyond Trend,” 2018. Production still from the Art in the Twenty First Century Season 9 episode, “San Francisco Bay Area.” © Art21, Inc. 2018.

The students are allowed a few weeks to give and get feedback while they work on and refine their artistic ideas relating to the body. As they are working, I often tell my students that art takes time. During each of these working classes, we pause to discuss the work of contemporary artists who are making art that has a connection to the body. In the Art21 clip of Creative Growth Art Center’s annual fashion show, we learn that many of the artists are making the clothes they are going to wear for up to two years. From that clip, my students get a chance to see the happiness and joy that comes from celebrating artistic achievements; I want my students to feel equally excited about the work that they create in our art class. This teaching unit shows that art that is about the body or that can be worn on the body has a special way of activating young artists and getting them excited about creating art.

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Joe Fusaro. Suspension, 2016. Acrylic, graphite, gesso on wood; 12×12 inches. © Joe Fusaro. Courtesy of the artist.

Being an artist and an educator is easy, but making meaningful connections between the two vocations isn’t always simple. For many years, I separately practiced both: each day, when I arrived at school, I left my artist identity in the car and walked into class, determined to be a great art teacher but wary of the connections between being an artist and an educator.

One day, a colleague, Donna, asked me why I didn’t share my own drawings and paintings with the students. “I don’t want them to think that’s what I want to see,” I replied, reluctant to overly influence their techniques or styles. But Donna helped me to see that I could place my work alongside other art examples that I was sharing; I didn’t have to say it was my work.

Joe Fusaro. Diary, 2018. Mixed-media on paper. 8×8 inches. © Joe Fusaro. Courtesy of the artist.

“It gives street cred to the things we discuss and share in the classroom.”

I followed her suggestion. In doing so, I found that showing students that their teacher is an educator and a working artist had an unexpected outcome. While showing one’s art to students is a gamble and humbling experience, it gives street cred to the things we discuss and share in the classroom. For example, when students ask specific questions about technique and medium, I can offer first hand advice. When students inquire about exhibiting and working with galleries and institutions to show their work, I can share ideas about how to price work fairly. Sharing my experience helps students to overcome the fear of submitting work for the first time to a group of strangers. Over the years I have occasionally hosted studio visits for students, and I discuss the schedule I set for working on my art and strategies for juggling different projects and commitments. Sharing my creative practice and process may provide inspiration to students, in the same way that I’ve learned from the stories and strategies of artists like Laylah Ali, Mark Dion, and Kara Walker.

Laylah Ali, painting in her studio, 2005. Production still from the Art in the Twenty First Century Season 3 episode, “Power.” © Art21, Inc. 2005.

Laylah Ali joined our Art21 Educators Summer Institute in 2016 and shared with the cohort how she balanced teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts with her continued work as an internationally known practicing artist. Her recent project, John Brown Song!, brings together research and collaboration in a way that teaches through art.

Mark Dion inside his installation Neukom Vivarium (2006) at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington. Production still from the Art in the Twenty First Century Season 4 episode, “Ecology.” © Art21, Inc. 2007.

Mark Dion, as a visual arts mentor at Columbia University School of the Arts, utilizes his work as a model for research and moving beyond the studio. For example, Dion’s Neukom Vivarium—which I have employed as part of my teaching in the classroom many times—serves as a reminder to all artists and educators that a primary goal of teachers is to provoke dialogue and discourse.

Kara Walker, standing at Algiers Point, New Orleans, in front of her piece Katastwóf Karavan (2018) in Prospect.4. Production still from the Extended Play episode, “Sending out a Signal.” © Art21, Inc. 2019.

In an Art21 Extended Play segment, Kara Walker discusses her ambivalence about being a young educator and having the responsibility to tell students how to be a successful artist. But she eventually admits to herself that she, like many artist-educators, must have something of value to offer young students interested in becoming artists. Walker reminds us that “there is no diploma that declares someone an artist” but rather a process of becoming an artist, after making the decision to be one.

Joe Fusaro. Prayer Book, 2013. Mixed-media on paper; 20×15 inches. © Joe Fusaro. Courtesy of the artist.

My artwork is often fueled by what goes on in the art classroom. Scrap paper from a printmaking unit, sandpaper from the floor of the ceramics studio, and even discarded photo experiments have served as launch pads for entire works, such as Prayer Book. Because these scraps are the products of labor and process, they inspire connections for me outside the classroom. Conversations with colleagues and even sudden movements or gestures of someone I’m working with sometimes are recalled later in the evening, at the studio.

While I work on my art, I often have my students in mind. Many pages of my sketchbooks include lists of artists, media, and other things I want to share with the people I teach. Like all teachers, I know that my students follow me around, even into my studio.

Bite Your Tongue: Works by Joe Fusaro is currently on view at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, Falmouth, MA through June 9, 2019.

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Art21 | Contemporary Art Film Blog by Tiona Nekkia Mcclodden - 3w ago

Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Be Alarmed Lobby Card, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

The sense of place achieves its clearest articulation through narrative, providing the thematic drive and focus of the stories that people tell about the places in their lives.
—Kent C. Ryden, Mapping the Invisible Landscape.

Archival image of postcard, artist unknown.

I was born in 1981 on an Air Force base in Blytheville, Arkansas, a small rural town where my mother Deborah Ann was born and raised, as were her mother Marvis and her grandmother Signora. Cotton fields are clear in my memory—they often appear as a white haze in the distance—and visits back to Blytheville happened near harvest season in late August. In my mother’s family, no one spoke of the fields until I was older and began to hear stories of my mother chopping cotton for spending money, to buy a pair of white pants to wear to school, in the 1970s. It was a difficult image to picture; I know her as an “ain’t working outside in the heat” kind of woman, but perhaps her experience of working in the fields is the reason.

“How do our families react to artwork that references their lives, their ancestors, and to the circumstances that have resulted?”

One exhibition that triggered in me a sense of nostalgia and of family was “Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals” show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017. Her sculptures echoed the shacks and wooded landscape of Blytheville. I felt my family in Buchanan’s works; I felt placed directly on the streets of the city, in some of the poorer Black-populated areas that were once lined with homes and now stand bare. Buchanan’s exhibition made a memory and a legacy tangible.

Kevin Beasley. A view of a landscape, 2019. Resin, Raw Virginia Cotton, Altered Garments, and Sound Equipment.  Production still from the New York Close Up film, “Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials,” 2019 © Art21, Inc. 2019

I had a similar experience when I visited Kevin Beasley‘s solo exhibition, “A view of a landscape”, at the Whitney Museum in December 2018. Seeing the show’s restored cotton-gin motor brought to mind a flood of images of my mother working in a field although I had never seen her do this work. I had been unable to share my experience of Buchanan’s exhibition with my mother, so I was determined to bring her to Beasley’s exhibition.

Social media screenshot, features A view of a landscape (2019), by Kevin Beasley. Image courtesy of the author.

“My curatorial and art work is sourced from my mother’s relationship to her surroundings.”

On January 13, 2018, we visited the Whitney Museum, a first for her. We made it up to the top floor, to the motor. It was silenced by a glass vitrine, and the room was oddly empty; both aspects allowed my mother to spend some time in silence and in solitude. I shared a few images of her viewing the motor on my private Instagram account, captioned with our brief spoken exchange in the galleries. My friends and I often think about how our families will react to artwork that makes reference to their lives, to those of their ancestors, and to the circumstances that have resulted. Within a few hours, my Instagram post was flooded with likes and comments. This proved to me that artworks like Beasley’s illuminate a shared history, one that is not so rare, and that there is a desire for more.

———————

My mother’s first job, as a sixteen-year-old, was chopping the weeds surrounding the cotton plants—a task known simply as “chopping cotton.” It was a time she rarely discussed. Her work in the cotton fields came more than one hundred eighty years after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, one hundred ten years after the abolishment of slavery in 1863, and only thirty-one years after the mechanical cotton picker was formalized and used in Arkansas, in 1944. The picker was the machine that my mother heard most during harvest; it stood at the end of the rows in the field. The entire cotton gin was housed by a much larger structure, and she was familiar only with its exterior.

After we visited Beasley’s show, I learned that one of the largest cotton gins in the United States was located on the western edge of my hometown. Finally, I was presented with an opportunity to ask my mother about her time in the fields, and she related some of her experience:

Chopping cotton was one of the first big jobs I had. Everybody knew: if you wanted to make some money, you chop cotton. I started out at age fifteen or sixteen, at fifteen dollars a day. You had to go down and ask Mr. Charlie Whirl if you could ride with him on the bus, or truck, or whatever [vehicle] he was taking. [He was] one of the many men in the area who took people to work in the fields. If he didn’t know you, you couldn’t go with him, but he knew our grandma.

Your day started at 4 a.m. You’d ride forever, it seems like, and arrive at the field around 6, at sun up. It would be so hot you’d have to take a straw hat and layers of clothes, a t-shirt and a long-sleeve shirt, or the sun would burn you.

You were given a hoe and instructions on how to chop the weeds from around the cotton so it could grow, because it was really low to the earth. We stopped at 5 o’clock, when the white man would bring the money. I would give grandma some even though it wasn’t a lot, but we didn’t have a lot. If [someone] yelled, “Snake!”—because there were snakes in the fields—I was done and would sit on the bus all day. I don’t do snakes.

——————

Marvis, Grandmother in Blytheville, AR, Date Unknown. Archival photograph courtesy of the author.

Much of my curatorial and art work is sourced from my mother’s relationship to her surroundings, her memories of my ancestors—primarily of my grandmother Marvis, who died when she was only thirteen years old—and my family’s history in the American South.

My practice considers three interrelated aspects of culture: artifacts, sociofacts, and mentifacts. They are foundational to my investment in Black mentifacts (shared ideas, values, or beliefs). No matter how deeply I research document-based archives, I always make reference to a grouping of people or a singular person, to seek out memories. I then try to create a form of material culture from the space between truth and fact, a space of conjecture that I dwell in conceptually. Everything I’ve ever produced must be rooted in a sense of feeling sourced from a Black mentifact, as opposed to just a happening or occurrence in the past or present.

In 2018, I pivoted my work’s focus to Black social and architectural spaces as sites for cultural innovation, relief, and pleasure. In March and April 2018, while in residence at Recess, as a part of the Session series, I transformed the exhibition space into a juke joint, built by hand, called “Shug Avery’s Kiss”, a reference to the character Shug Avery in Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple. I curated a program of events that included: letter-writing workshops with fellow Black women; an intimate discussion about love with the artist Chloe Bass; and workshops on religion and spirituality with my friend Ash Tai, on sisterhood with my youngest sister, and on friendship with my friend, Keondra. In addition, I hosted three live jukes, rooted in presentation and collaboration: in one, I made a pair of pants with the artist Diamond Stingily, and the other provided me the opportunity to collaborate with my mother, by inviting her to conduct a wig-making workshop, using me as the hair model. In recreating this community space, a conversation was started and a conversation was preserved.

Tiona Nekkia McClodden and her mother as a part of Shug Avery’s Kiss (2018), at Recess. Courtesy of the author.

The abstraction, or rather extension, of that installation also paid homage to not only the juke joint as a historical site of Black artistic creation and social engagement but also to my grandmother Marvis, who frequented jukes after working in a shoe factory in Blytheville. Photos of her were placed on the walls of the juke, the only images of her that I have seen in full clarity. Before I built the installation, I went to Greenville, South Carolina, to speak with my mother and her sisters about the juke joints they had visited or heard of. They shared their memories of the smell of the wood, the alcohol, the porch lights, and the music, which informed how I sculpted the Recess space. My grandmother’s images served as references for color, and Shug Avery was the muse.

Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Shug Avery’s Kiss, 2018. © Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Courtesy of the artist.

Vernacular architecture—and specifically Black vernacular interiors—is often left in an impermanent state, only existing within memory, as most of the buildings, homes, and jukes are no longer standing. They have passed away, just like their owners, who are primarily elders with no heirs interested in taking over such a complex space in a modern society.

For my mother, just the sight of an object that she had never seen—the cotton-gin motor is the interior of a machine, heard but meant to be hidden—reminded her of a time, of a place, of a labor. In the Whitney exhibition, the motor was encased to stifle a sound that would cause one to leave before experiencing the whirling cavity, a condition that also enshrined its power. The sound separated (much like the cotton from the seed) the slab sculptures presenting a contemporary fossilized history of Blackness and its relation to cotton—from flower to t-shirt, to my mother’s white pants—and made transparent our proximity to this flower and our participation in this labor. To me, this is the success of Beasley’s installation: it is accessible to those in direct proximity to the landscape surrounding it, to the exterior of it all.

Production still from the New York Close Up film, “Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials,” 2019 © Art21, Inc. 2019

After my mother and I spend some time with Beasley’s cotton-gin motor, we walk to the museum café. She is clearly overwhelmed, and we spend much of our time in silence, watching people brave the winter cold to take pictures on the balcony. After taking a sip of her overpriced tea, she looks at me and says, “It’s really cool that this is in this museum. I remember being right there in the field.”

Me: What years were you in the fields again?
Mother: Oh it was ‘75, ’76, I reckon..
Me: Wait, so only 6 years before I was born?
Mother: Yep, I suppose that’s right.

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Courtesy of the artist.

Landscape has always been a foundational lens through which I interpret the world around me. I was born in Kentucky and raised in Florida. My maternal family’s farm lies in the rural flatlands of western Tennessee, and my dad’s family is from the tobacco country of the Carolinas. As a product of the American South, and growing up with its unforgiving humidity, dense swamplands and bayous, omnipresent reptiles, dripping moss, and strangling kudzu, I understood how landscape underscored my everyday experience. I learned how natural materials hold a tangible history of lineage, labor, and land that communities pass down to succeeding generations through shared stories and mythologies. Today, my work folds the unique histories of place into an experience that considers how land and its accompanying lore contribute to contemporary social, political, and psychic constructions of space, particularly in the landscapes that are significant to my family. I am also interested in the role of landscape in the creation of Americana and in how the natural environment is the central protagonist, not a backdrop, of everyday life.

Allison Janae Hamilton. When the wind has teeth, 2018. Archival digital print. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Courtesy of the artist and MASS MoCA.

“Everyday confluences of life, labor, and land were the basis of my experience of the world.”

In Tennessee, the family farm was centered on cotton and soybean crops. My great-grandparents, my grandmother and her nine siblings, and my mother and countless cousins called this land their home. My aunts made muscadine wine and fermented persimmons into beer. They raised guinea hens, hogs, catfish, and hunting hounds. My great-grandmother, for whom I was named, was a known markswoman; she passed on her skill of how to handle a rifle, by teaching her daughters. When I was a child, my mother and I would make the trek from Florida to Tennessee a few times each year, to help with the planting and harvest seasons. We’d snap beans in the spring and silk corn in the summer. Around Thanksgiving, cotton lined the sides of every road in town like snow, as it fell off the trucks heading for processing. In Florida, we’d prepare for hurricanes during the rainy season, tend to backyard citrus, and were endlessly watchful of alligators in neighborhood canals. These everyday confluences of life, labor, and land were the basis of my experience of the world. But the fraught history and present realities of the landscape were always intertwined with its seductions. In my work, I mine this simultaneous haunting and beauty as a material embedded in the natural elements of the land, whether in the turpentine industry in northern Florida or in the ability of natural disasters like floods and hurricanes to shed light on existing social disasters.

Allison Janae Hamilton. Pitch, 2018. Archival digital print. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Photo: David Dashiell. Courtesy of the artist and MASS MoCA.

“Southerners are haunted by their own landscape.”
—Walker Evens.

The photographer Walker Evans said, “Southerners are haunted by their own landscape.” The unsettling figures in my work are accordant with this idea, as they convey the concerns of today’s changing Southern terrain, such as community-land loss, environmental injustice, climate change, and sustainability. Each work contains narratives that are pieced together from folktales, hunting and farming rituals, African-American nature writing, and hymns both religious and secular. The ecosystems contained in my work exist between the tangible and the fantastic, bringing the captivating and the disquieting together in ways that speak of rituals, histories, and myths embedded within the Southern land. I folded these multiple experiences into Pitch, my recent exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition’s central installation—a grove of pine trees that weaved through the gallery—focused on the arduous legacy of turpentining in northern Florida, tapping the trees for sap, which was once the state’s second-largest industry after citrus. The exhibition’s title suggests the resin of pine trees mined in the turpentine-making process, the myths and fables that take place in the dark hours of the night, and an array of noises heard in the pinewoods and swamps of northern Florida, from the sounds of animals to those associated with labor and song.

Allison Janae Hamilton. The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm, 2018. Installation view of Indicators: Artists on Climate Change. Painted tambourines and steel armature, 18 ft. x 36 in. x 36 in. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Photo: Jerry L. Thompson. Courtesy of Courtesy of the artist and Storm King Art Center.

The connections between labor, the environment, ritual, and tragedy are themes I explored in the creation of my monumental outdoor sculpture, The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm, mounted in 2018 at Storm King Art Center as part of the exhibition, Indicators: Artists on Climate Change. The eighteen-foot-tall sculpture comprised three stacks of white-painted tambourines, a nod to the chorus of the 1928 hymn, “Florida Storm,” written by Judge Jackson about the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. That same year, another storm—the infamous Okeechobee Hurricane—would ravage the state, serving as the backdrop for Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Both storms devastated Florida; the latter killed thousands of Black migrant workers, who were buried in unmarked mass graves. Through my Storm King sculpture, I contemplated how climate-related disasters expose existing social inequities and how affected communities contend with the two-fold devastation. Activating the installation at the sculpture park was a performance, involving musicians who presented a soundscape inspired by the original “Florida Storm” hymn.

Allison Janae Hamilton. Installation view of Pitch, 2018. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Photo: David Dashiell. Courtesy of the artist and MASS MoCA.

Allison Janae Hamilton. Installation view of Pitch, 2018. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Photo: David Dashiell. Courtesy of the artist and MASS MoCA.

“Too often, narratives of land, particularly of the American South, are considered solely for their pasts.”

My most recent project, opening at MoMA PS1 in June 2019 as the culminating exhibition of my artist residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, follows my recent explorations of land and experiments with water as a conduit. Through this lens, I’ll explore the perception of the coastal landscape as Edenic in contrast to the realities affecting those who dwell there, such as issues of labor, forced migration, exploitation, and toxic pollution. With an eye toward the coastal American South and my home state of Florida in particular, these works explore narratives that portray aquatic landscapes as paradisal and that both relate and contrast to the contemporary rituals of life along the water’s edge. The centerpiece of the installation, Wacissa, is a single-channel video of an abstract underwater river scene, with accompanying photographs that depict an ethereal figure floating underwater and young girls traversing through a sable-palm forest; corpse-like creatures positioned on the exhibition floor and suspended in space. The room is treated as a mythical terrain—in some ways, an idealized aquatic paradise; in others, an archaeological site filled with harsh remnants of life. The work’s morphologies delineate a territory that may have arisen in the aftermath of a natural or human-made catastrophe. Part water landscape, part wasteland, this territory emerges after the overuse and destruction of its resources, yet it eerily remains a pleasurable scene. Utilizing artifacts—natural elements and reclaimed resources—affords me an opportunity to present findings that exist on old terrain, an eroded and uncertain territory laden with the suspense of the imagined landscape.

Allison Janae Hamilton. Brecencia and Pheasant II, 2018. Archival digital print. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Courtesy of the artist.

Inspired by history, family, and folklore, I intend to reflect the current questions of landscape, because too often, narratives of land, particularly of the American South, are considered solely for their pasts, as if the most significant elements of life have already happened and are frozen in time. My work is an attempt to explore the land as it exists along with the living, now and toward the future.

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Courtesy of the artist.

Landscape has always been a foundational lens through which I interpret the world around me. I was born in Kentucky and raised in Florida. My maternal family’s farm lies in the rural flatlands of western Tennessee, and my dad’s family is from the tobacco country of the Carolinas. As a product of the American South, and growing up with its unforgiving humidity, dense swamplands and bayous, omnipresent reptiles, dripping moss, and strangling kudzu, I understood how landscape underscored my everyday experience. I learned how natural materials hold a tangible history of lineage, labor, and land that communities pass down to succeeding generations through shared stories and mythologies. Today, my work folds the unique histories of place into an experience that considers how land and its accompanying lore contribute to contemporary social, political, and psychic constructions of space, particularly in the landscapes that are significant to my family. I am also interested in the role of landscape in the creation of Americana and in how the natural environment is the central protagonist, not a backdrop, of everyday life.

Allison Janae Hamilton. When the wind has teeth, 2018. Archival digital print. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Courtesy of the artist and MASS MoCA.

“Everyday confluences of life, labor, and land were the basis of my experience of the world.”

In Tennessee, the family farm was centered on cotton and soybean crops. My great-grandparents, my grandmother and her nine siblings, and my mother and countless cousins called this land their home. My aunts made muscadine wine and fermented persimmons into beer. They raised guinea hens, hogs, catfish, and hunting hounds. My great-grandmother, for whom I was named, was a known markswoman; she passed on her skill of how to handle a rifle, by teaching her daughters. When I was a child, my mother and I would make the trek from Florida to Tennessee a few times each year, to help with the planting and harvest seasons. We’d snap beans in the spring and silk corn in the summer. Around Thanksgiving, cotton lined the sides of every road in town like snow, as it fell off the trucks heading for processing. In Florida, we’d prepare for hurricanes during the rainy season, tend to backyard citrus, and were endlessly watchful of alligators in neighborhood canals. These everyday confluences of life, labor, and land were the basis of my experience of the world. But the fraught history and present realities of the landscape were always intertwined with its seductions. In my work, I mine this simultaneous haunting and beauty as a material embedded in the natural elements of the land, whether in the turpentine industry in northern Florida or in the ability of natural disasters like floods and hurricanes to shed light on existing social disasters.

Allison Janae Hamilton. Pitch, 2018. Archival digital print. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Photo: David Dashiell. Courtesy of the artist and MASS MoCA.

“Southerners are haunted by their own landscape.”
—Walker Evens.

The photographer Walker Evans said, “Southerners are haunted by their own landscape.” The unsettling figures in my work are accordant with this idea, as they convey the concerns of today’s changing Southern terrain, such as community-land loss, environmental injustice, climate change, and sustainability. Each work contains narratives that are pieced together from folktales, hunting and farming rituals, African-American nature writing, and hymns both religious and secular. The ecosystems contained in my work exist between the tangible and the fantastic, bringing the captivating and the disquieting together in ways that speak of rituals, histories, and myths embedded within the Southern land. I folded these multiple experiences into Pitch, my recent exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibition’s central installation—a grove of pine trees that weaved through the gallery—focused on the arduous legacy of turpentining in northern Florida, tapping the trees for sap, which was once the state’s second-largest industry after citrus. The exhibition’s title suggests the resin of pine trees mined in the turpentine-making process, the myths and fables that take place in the dark hours of the night, and an array of noises heard in the pinewoods and swamps of northern Florida, from the sounds of animals to those associated with labor and song.

Allison Janae Hamilton. The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm, 2018. Installation view of Indicators: Artists on Climate Change. Painted tambourines and steel armature, 18 ft. x 36 in. x 36 in. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Photo: Jerry L. Thompson. Courtesy of Courtesy of the artist and Storm King Art Center.

The connections between labor, the environment, ritual, and tragedy are themes I explored in the creation of my monumental outdoor sculpture, The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm, mounted in 2018 at Storm King Art Center as part of the exhibition, Indicators: Artists on Climate Change. The eighteen-foot-tall sculpture comprised three stacks of white-painted tambourines, a nod to the chorus of the 1928 hymn, “Florida Storm,” written by Judge Jackson about the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. That same year, another storm—the infamous Okeechobee Hurricane—would ravage the state, serving as the backdrop for Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Both storms devastated Florida; the latter killed thousands of Black migrant workers, who were buried in unmarked mass graves. Through my Storm King sculpture, I contemplated how climate-related disasters expose existing social inequities and how affected communities contend with the two-fold devastation. Activating the installation at the sculpture park was a performance, involving musicians who presented a soundscape inspired by the original “Florida Storm” hymn.

Allison Janae Hamilton. Installation view of Pitch, 2018. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Photo: David Dashiell. Courtesy of the artist and MASS MoCA.

Allison Janae Hamilton. Installation view of Pitch, 2018. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Photo: David Dashiell. Courtesy of the artist and MASS MoCA.

“Too often, narratives of land, particularly of the American South, are considered solely for their pasts.”

My most recent project, opening at MoMA PS1 in June 2019 as the culminating exhibition of my artist residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, follows my recent explorations of land and experiments with water as a conduit. Through this lens, I’ll explore the perception of the coastal landscape as Edenic in contrast to the realities affecting those who dwell there, such as issues of labor, forced migration, exploitation, and toxic pollution. With an eye toward the coastal American South and my home state of Florida in particular, these works explore narratives that portray aquatic landscapes as paradisal and that both relate and contrast to the contemporary rituals of life along the water’s edge. The centerpiece of the installation, Wacissa, is a single-channel video of an abstract underwater river scene, with accompanying photographs that depict an ethereal figure floating underwater and young girls traversing through a sable-palm forest; corpse-like creatures positioned on the exhibition floor and suspended in space. The room is treated as a mythical terrain—in some ways, an idealized aquatic paradise; in others, an archaeological site filled with harsh remnants of life. The work’s morphologies delineate a territory that may have arisen in the aftermath of a natural or human-made catastrophe. Part water landscape, part wasteland, this territory emerges after the overuse and destruction of its resources, yet it eerily remains a pleasurable scene. Utilizing artifacts—natural elements and reclaimed resources—affords me an opportunity to present findings that exist on old terrain, an eroded and uncertain territory laden with the suspense of the imagined landscape.

Allison Janae Hamilton. Brecencia and Pheasant II, 2018. Archival digital print. © Allison Janae Hamilton. Courtesy of the artist.

Inspired by history, family, and folklore, I intend to reflect the current questions of landscape, because too often, narratives of land, particularly of the American South, are considered solely for their pasts, as if the most significant elements of life have already happened and are frozen in time. My work is an attempt to explore the land as it exists along with the living, now and toward the future.

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Kevin Beasley in his studio.Production still from the New York Close Up film, “Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials,” 2019 © Art21, Inc. 2019.

Editor’s Note: “Sound has always been important to me, and it has increasingly become a way for me to process the world,” reflected Kevin Beasley in a recent Art21 New York Close Up film, which offered a look behind the scenes as the artist prepared for his Whitney Museum exhibition, A view of a landscape. Celebrated for his material-oriented practice, Beasley often pairs sound with sculpture, through installation and performance, to create an opportunity for a multisensory experience: a visual, physical and audible confrontation of the history around us.

Featured below is a dialogue between Beasley and Mark Bradford, who met at Yale University, where Beasley was an MFA student and Bradford was a visiting artist. Here, the two share their experiences, from navigating the world as Black men to their approaches to materials and creative practices. The dialogue—originally published in the book Kevin Beasley, in tandem with Beasley’s first major museum exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston, curated by Ruth Erickson, the ICA’s Mannion Family Curator—provides insight into two great creative minds at different stages of their careers.

Kevin Beasley: We first met in the spring of 2012 when I was doing my MFA at Yale, and you were a visiting artist there. It was so generative, and there was an immediate connection, so as a starting point for our conversation I wanted to return to some of the concerns you raised, and the subject of the studio. When you came into my studio, I remember that I almost immediately started getting into the social and political content of my work, and you interjected by recognizing my investment in these relationships but insisted that I look at an even broader picture within my practice, and more specifically, to not box the work in. I’m paraphrasing here but you said that people always try to categorize you and see you in a way they want to, particularly as a black artist, so it’s important to allow the aspects of your interests that are outside of stereotypes of the black identity to surface—that which is unexpected. A lot has occurred since 2012, so as an attempt to check in on these ideas, I’m curious about how this continues to factor into your decisions in the studio, if at all? ¹

Mark Bradford: Did I, at Yale? Well good. What struck me when I first entered your studio was your thought process, and your investigation of materials. Yes, black artists really have to “claim” that space of fluidity as we work through our ideas and investigate, to be able to say: “I’m figuring my shit out.” I would look at the sculptures and your fascination with music as a jumping off point for a kind of meditation. And I remember you being very clear about what your interests were and I think since then you have stood firm. That’s why your work rings true. Oftentimes what we learn in grad school is a theoretical European gaze, as if nothing or anything else would or should be the impetus for the work. But I believe that being black demands a kind of double speak/double consciousness à la [W. E. B.] Du Bois. The black male body is one of the most politicized bodies in the USA. How can we turn fully away from the political, social, and national debates?

Mark Bradford in his studio, Los Angeles, CA, 2006. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 4 episode, Paradox. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

“An audio recording of a riot has a particular rhythm and timbre.”
—Kevin Beasley

KB: I would even suggest that the attempt to turn away, if that was an interest, would have to recognize the social and political debates in order to know from what one is turning. It’s just not a useful exercise to turn one’s back on these issues without a sense of its trajectory. This is one reason why your video work in the American Pavilion² was so resonant, because it embedded this double consciousness—within the work there is a walking away from the gaze and yet towards something beyond our sight and vision—the man’s gait actually suggested a sense of resolve; something more generative and internally resolute. It’s a very nuanced and multilayered work in that context because it produced an image of representation that laid claim to this fluidity. You made visible the act of walking away from the gaze. I saw its function parallel to the treatment of the building itself, within which abstracted gestures could take on multiple reads with a kind of sociopolitical awareness. For example, can one see within the work a level of awareness to these concerns within abstract gestures and forms without prior knowledge of that interest/relationship? What is being abstracted? And how does that action continue to carry the cultural weight of those materials? I think this is why I have an interest in this kind of abstraction, the kind that utilizes these cultural materials as a mode of exploration. I ask these questions when working with music and sound clips—does the audio from a significant/tragic political event still carry its importance when it is recontextualized? How much abstraction can this go through before it loses its immediacy? Or even urgency? Because I really think that an audio recording of a riot has a particular rhythm and timbre.

Kevin Beasley in his studio.Production still from the New York Close Up film, “Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials,” 2019 © Art21, Inc. 2019

MB: Can you talk a little more about your use of materials? It seems that you have such a rich array, a mature gaze. How did that develop?

KB: Materials are always an expanding aspect of my practice because as much as I enjoy the technical understanding of how these things come together, I am constantly questioning what can be a viable material to use, to explore the ideas I am engaging with. Materials sometimes drive an artwork and at other times they are the byproduct of an experience I’ve had that either left me vulnerable, or left me unable to express something about that experience with words. For example, seeing a cotton field for the very first time in my life left me speechless, not just because of slavery and the American cotton field, but also because of its materiality—its transformation, yet its essential quality. A cotton blanket isn’t that far removed from a raw cotton boll—there is actually very little noticeable processing. That direct transformation is very important because at its core, it is unlike anything else.

Kevin Beasley in his studio.Production still from the New York Close Up film, “Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials,” 2019 © Art21, Inc. 2019

“I’m constantly trying to develop and refine my approach.”
—Kevin Beasley

There are no substitutes when you consider the entire life of the material. So I am constantly thinking about how I get to an understanding of my surroundings (people, places, and such) in all of their nuances. It is how I end up using housedresses and kaftans in some work and then a crushed Cadillac Escalade in another—they are both connected to my navigation of the world because I’ve had compelling questions about those objects, people who have had an impact in my life, and the effects of society on the way I am perceived/perceive myself. It’s myriad; I become overwhelmed by the varying levels of emphasis placed on subjects, context, and how much that can fluctuate in the process, but I’m constantly trying to develop and refine my approach. Something that worked for me in the studio a year or two ago just may not now because my thinking and knowledge on what certain materials evolves.

MB: Your projects generally have such a strong materiality; how do you connect these with your work with sound, music, with vinyl? Are these an expansion of your practice, or did this work develop simultaneously?

(Top) Kevin Beasley inside the vitrine with the Cotton Gin Motor. (Bottom) Detail of the cotton gin motor. Production still from the New York Close Up film, “Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials,” 2019 © Art21, Inc. 2019

KB: I’ve played drums since I was thirteen, and I have some basic sheet music reading ability, but for the longest time, I’d always kept my music separate from art. The lines began to blur while I was in graduate school, specifically because of my increasing interest in vinyl and mixing. Mixing was really the “aha” moment because I’d never thought about how tactile, how physical, and how transformable sound and music could be through vinyl. Once I’d invested a bit of my student loan money into some DJ equipment, it all became another set of sculptural tools. I saw them in the same way I viewed any of my other tools and materials, except instead of plaster, resin, or clothing, it was recordings and the sound waves of various frequencies. What I had worked so hard to keep separate for the sake of some kind of purity became the very thing I needed to break down and mix up. So in one way, my practice is invested in the discovery of these connective aspects of materiality.

“If there was more of an emphasis focused listening, I think we could begin to understand more nuance in our daily encounters.”
—Kevin Beasley

I’ve become especially interested in recorded sound because it provides us with a mark of time, like an etching in a wall or an ancient relief. It becomes materially significant because it describes the condition of a space through other means than our sense of seeing, which we rely on so heavily to navigate the world. I just can’t continue to move through society without asking questions about what I’m hearing, what is being said, the noise of the world. I could go on forever about it, but I will say this: the immediate urgency I find in sound—even more so when it comes from a physical object such as vinyl—is the necessity to listen and give it time and space. It’s so much about observation and actually submitting to what is being projected and that is a very vulnerable and revealing space to commit to, because you open yourself up to hearing something you may not understand, like, or agree with. If there was more of an emphasis focused listening, I think we could begin to understand more nuance in our daily encounters, effectively refining our relationships with one another and the world we inhabit. 

MB: So with mixing and vinyl becoming sculptural tools, how did you begin to craft a language around them? I mean, there ain’t a lot of people using this particular toolbox.  I remember DJ Spooky [Paul Miller] years ago—nothing like what you do, but his name comes to mind. There is always a sense of purity, isn’t there? Blur, remix, and acceleration always come to my mind when I’m looking at your work. I remember the earlier sculptures, and then the shift to mixing and I noticed there was a lot of buzz and I thought: I hope he keeps going. I love that you did and that you keep pushing.

Kevin Beasley in the studio. Production still from the New York Close Up film, “Kevin Beasley’s Raw Materials,” 2019 © Art21, Inc. 2019

“Language is always a bit late to the party isn’t?”
—Mark Bradford

KB: Language can be tough for me because I always feel like what I’m describing is still not what is happening, or that the words I am finding are foundational to something else that is more interesting and/or relevant. Working with vinyl, I was literally looking for words to describe the techniques—kind of a pun right there, since the Technics SL1200 is the industry standard turntable for DJs—for mixing and so much of DJing and mixing language relates to art making. Scratching has two important meanings to me in both music and in making sculptures, not to mention the word “mixing.” I do think a practice of questioning is essential, and a lot of questions were produced, but I want some answers along the way too. I think the words I cling to describe some of the answers I’ve found within a much bigger trajectory. I’ve also wanted to ask you about this because you find language so naturally—it’s really sharp, funny, but also really relatable—even when speaking about adversity your approach is very uplifting. How do you think about language in relationship to your artworks and your practice?

MB: I agree—language is always a bit late to the party isn’t?  I think you do a good job of leaving room for a certain fluidity, much like your mixing. What is always the challenge is to maintain that sense of fluidity as you change and grow. Language is not and will not ever be perfect. It’s like that childhood friend you should have dropped long ago but you still cling to the childhood memories although you’ve been let down a million times. That’s language for me: flawed. But I often use humor to skate along the edge of an idea, to maybe push it into a space that is a little more uncomfortable under the guise of “ha ha ha.” Really, you find out what fits after you kill the theoretical “daddy” that sits on all of our shoulders post-grad school. I’m curious to know where you are now. You’ve been out of school for a few years now and are critically questioning things. Does it effect how you think about how to use language, or what has recently changed?

Mark Bradford in his studio, Los Angeles, CA, 2006. Production still from the Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 4 episode, Paradox. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

KB: I definitely feel the weight of the theory daddy, even though I never read much theory—I’m not good at recalling references and names, and it is taking me time to let my emotions and senses take over rather than my mind and analysis. It’s an ongoing battle and shows up in the way I try to speak about it. But I do feel a change, and in fact, while I was in grad school I had these heavy emotional experiences. It made me think, okay—this is the potent stuff that I can’t rationalize nor can I ignore it, and most importantly, I really didn’t understand it. In the years since grad school, it has been so much about how to be someone who is critically questioning things via these emotions and feelings. And really, I would say that the critical questioning I’m engaged in is a severe case of skepticism about where I am in society. There is true value in those feelings, especially if you’re an affectionate and passionate person, which I consider myself to be. I just hope to develop a collection of words and experiences that can be read by others who can relate and connect with them; and maybe that can breed a generative society.

[1] This conversation was conducted over e-mail from September 1–October 25, 2017. [2] Mark Bradford represented the United States in the 57th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale with the exhibition Tomorrow is Another Day (May 13–November 26, 2017).
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