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In her 1995 essay, “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison mentioned the Mississippi River—how its route was redirected to make space for housing and acreage, and how areas in its former path experience intermittent flooding. “[B]ut in fact it is not flooding,” she writes, “it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be.”1 Morrison believed that writers behave similarly, reassembling the past from the traces left behind. Her approach to fiction hovered at the crossroads between the truth, the remembered, and the invented. Though she may begin with an image culled from reality, she preferred to dwell in her emotional memory of the image rather than convey exact facts, letting her impulses guide her “reconstruction of a world.”2 A stray detail or hunch would lead her on a “journey to a site to see what remains were left behind.”3 To these remains, she added her own possibilities. Kevin Beasley works similarly.
The New York-based multimedia artist recently held his first Los Angeles solo show at Regen Projects, a gallery situated on a frantic corner of Santa Monica Boulevard. I darted there, one balmy weekend in May, and was greeted by abstract, candy-colored whirlpools that rippled with ineffable movements. The works hung on the walls and were joined by the sounds of twinkling birds. For a minute, I lost sense of where I was. It was like being simultaneously in a gallery and still out on the street, dually inside and outside. Moving further into the space exposed me to other auditory frequencies that rumbled below the chirping—what sounded like a slowed-down heartbeat and the half-snatched murmurings of distant voices. Like Morrison’s notion of water, my memories seemed to emerge and blend with Beasley’s as I viewed the works, creating new forms of connection in the process.
Featuring 28 works all made in 2022—ranging from ossified sculptures to booming sound collages that worked in concert to conjure a multi-sensory experience—On site continues Beasley’s decade-long experiment with sculpture, sound, and the quixotic intermingling of the two. He is known for his fabric-based wall objects, which riff on the ancient sculptural technique of relief, a method of adding 3-dimensional elements onto a flat surface.4 Beasley inundates his surfaces with materials, combining puffy wisps of raw Virginia cotton with T-shirts and other items (many sourced from family and friends) before bonding the fragments in polyurethane resin. At Regen, Beasley’s reliefs, or “slabs,” as he calls them, punctuated the walls of the three galleries and ranged from roughly human-scale to the size of a wide bay window. At first glance, these wall sculptures might be mistaken for woozy acrylic paintings that live somewhere within the modernist canon; Beasley’s sly wink toward the artistic legacies that he upends. With titles like Site and Section, which refer to two distinct series within the show, most of the slabs are glossy topographies that straddle the lines between landscape, painting, and sculpture. From afar, portions of In my dream I saw a landscape looked like a fantasia of melted Jolly Ranchers and chewed-up Starbursts, an explosion of mustard and cerulean. Drawing closer, I recognized four housedresses in shades of seafoam green levitating like ghosts on the left side of the slab. Strips of cherry red T-shirts pirouetted across the surface of Site V, while two black durags seemed to waltz against a lemony stream.
On site finds the artist returning to his memories of Virginia, where he was born and raised, and the work in the show continues Beasley’s general inquiry into place as a potent site of remembrance, history, and invention. His artworks reflect this search, often circling a central question: What narratives are told by our surroundings? In his return to his homeland, though, he is less concerned with presenting the past exactly as it was. Instead, he has built out audiovisual landscapes where personal and historical remains merge with chance. Taking material form and grabbing hold of us in ways that burrow into the deepest parts of our core, these works invite us to reconsider how the past echoes in our present. When staring into a spill of color embedded in one of Beasley’s slabs or listening to the natural soundtrack humming through the gallery, I found myself falling into a psychically alive space, where private memories collided with historical debris in ways that upended my understanding of place and belonging.
Four of the slabs featured dye sublimation-printed photos taken in parts of Virginia, including Lynchburg, where Beasley grew up, and Valentines, where his family has owned a plot of land for generations. Engaging with the photos felt like flipping through a personal album. There were images of bushy trees; a wooden shed; and a figure in the distance, ear fastened to a cell phone. These pictures move beyond pure documentation—printed on T-shirts and then added into his slab works, Beasley subtly warps the surface of the images, creating riptides of distortion, as if the memories are still in the process of being stitched together. The slabs deluge viewers with their sensory multiplicity, suggesting a fascination not just with intimate, personal objects but with how they telegraph larger cultural narratives.
Left with the traces of Beasley’s narrative, I began grafting my own stories onto his objects, creating a shared experience based on invention and collaboration. In this way, Beasley’s practice extends outwards, opening us up to a self that is an amalgamation of details and experiences; a history that is elastic and malleable. By integrating charged items like cotton alongside others that hold private meaning (housedresses, personal photos, durags), Beasley considers the residues of the South—how it continues to mold not only his particular history and perspective but also our national conceptions of self and other. Beasley’s uncanny environments turn our attention to the ways that the residues of chattel slavery, both as an economic system and a method of anti-Black surveillance, continue to reverberate across our country like a spectral presence, warping our conceptions of labor, freedom, and identity. His materials speak their own narratives, reminding us that we cannot escape their hold unless we address their effects, no matter the myths we create.
“It’s really important that an object comes from me or at least someone close to me,” Beasley explained to Art in America. “That’s the starting point, and the work sort of opens up from there.”5 In 2011, while visiting Valentines for an annual family reunion, he noticed cotton growing on a farm leased on his paternal grandmother’s property. The sight sent Beasley down an existential rabbit hole, sparked by his desire to place himself within his family’s particular lineage as well as the larger history of Black Americans in the South. “I was spending time down there just trying to understand, in some way, what makes me: How am I here? What am I doing? Why am I making work?”6 These ruminations led to his use of raw cotton from Valentines as a recurring material in his work. He also purchased a 1915 cotton gin motor on eBay, which became the centerpiece of his pivotal Whitney Museum exhibition in 2018, A view of a landscape. Placed inside a clear soundproof box and surrounded by microphones in one gallery, the motor’s continuous drone was broadcast into a separate gallery. As Aria Dean wrote in a review of the show for Spike Art Quarterly, the exhibition “catches us all in its gears,” as we attempt to place ourselves within the aftermath of slavery.7 Though On site hit quieter registers than A view of a landscape, it joined Beasley’s evolving loop, creating an experience that implicates its viewers in the creation of our personal and national narratives.
Eventually, I found the origin of On site’s fizzing soundscape: a modified utility pole, set up in the South gallery, fittingly titled THE SOURCE. Rising from floor to ceiling and outfitted with LED streetlights, the pole looked like a preserved relic from a bygone neighborhood. A pair of blue and white Nike Cortez sneakers hung from powerlines suspended from the ceiling and a beverage cooler was attached near the bottom of the structure. The hum of an internal AC unit added to the layered soundtrack, which emanated from speakers that were connected by the sinuous powerlines and positioned throughout the gallery (including on the roof). The work played a collage of field recordings taken by Beasley across various locations, with a different soundtrack for each day of the week. On my second visit, a Wednesday, the audio had shifted from the natural sounds of my weekend visit, moving from a crooning synth to a percussive, motorized loop.
THE SOURCE is itself a continuation of sorts—Beasley presented an iteration of the sculpture at Prospect New Orleans, a triennial exhibition, last February. To have a version of this New Orleans sculpture, which was installed in the Lower Ninth Ward on land purchased by Beasley,8 reappear in a Los Angeles gallery creates another return, reminding us of the ways that the American South has also shaped this city. Placed in the same gallery as the Virginia slabs, THE SOURCE adds to Beasley’s curio cabinet of Southern materials. His work insists that the act of returning is a full-body experience, one that obliterates the limits we place on time and space and leads to “a multidimensional understanding”9 of ourselves and our surroundings. For Beasley, returning is another word for deep engagement, a communal practice of enveloping ourselves within the strange loops of history. In placing us within the currents of his memories, Beasley embraces Morrison’s belief that remembering is a collective experience, a way of recognizing and tapping into the unspoken energies linking us in time.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 29.