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Kevin Beasley debuts immersive installation at the Whitney
Kevin Beasley, Rebuilding of the cotton gin motor, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York. Image courtesy of Carlos Vela-Prado.

NEW YORK, NY.- For his most ambitious exhibition to date, Kevin Beasley confronts the legacy of the American South in a powerful new installation that explores the intersection of history, labor, land, and race. Reclaiming a 1915 electric motor that once powered a cotton gin on an Alabama farm during the middle of the twentieth century, Beasley creates a multipart installation in which he distills the visual and auditory experiences of the machine. Kevin Beasley: A view of a landscape opens in the Whitney’s eighth floor Hurst Family Galleries on December 15, 2018 and runs through March 10, 2019.

Through the use of customized microphones, soundproofing, and audio hardware, the installation detaches the physical motor from the sounds it produces, enabling visitors to have distinct sensorial experiences. In one room, the one-ton motor runs in a custom-made soundproof chamber; the sounds it generates are picked up by the microphones, which carry the audio signals into the adjacent room. There, the motor’s sounds, heard through an arrangement of speakers set at different amplifications, form a sonic landscape. During live performances, the sounds can also be manipulated and processed to produce a composition of the artist’s design. A series of performances by Beasley and other artists whom he has invited to perform will take place in the galleries throughout the run of the exhibition.

“Kevin has been dreaming about this project for over seven years,” says Christopher Y. Lew, the Nancy and Fred Poses Curator, who is organizing the exhibition. “It’s an honor to help realize his most ambitious work to date at the Whitney. The work is truly of epic proportions. It re-animates an object that gives voice to the deep and recent pasts as well as our contemporary moment.”

Drawn by the motor’s material presence as well as by its historical significance, Beasley has spent years conceiving this installation. He initially displayed the motor, unaltered, as part of his 2012 thesis exhibition in the MFA program at Yale University. The machine was used on a farm from 1940 to 1973 in Maplesville, Alabama, just thirty miles from Selma, Alabama, a key site in the struggle for racial equality. Beasley regards the motor as a kind of witness to some of the most significant events of the twentieth century, including the civil rights movement.

“The cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1793, increased the number of slaves by over 70%, deepening the trauma for Black folks in America. As the invention evolved and emancipation was declared, Black people have been working to reconcile our relationship to class, labor, race, and human rights within the structure of laws,” said Kevin Beasley. “For me, this exhibition embodies a continued reconciliation that can extend to the broader public. Are we reflecting on this history collectively? And are we taking the necessary steps to generate a fresh approach and change to systemic issues that persist today?"

The exhibition also includes new large-scale “slab” sculptures made with a range of materials central to Beasley’s practice, such as polyurethane resin, housedresses, du-rags, guinea fowl feathers, studio tools, electric appliances, audio equipment, and raw cotton from the artist’s native Virginia, where his family has owned land for generations. Resembling freestanding walls, these sculptures are informed by architecture and inspired, in part, by Assyrian reliefs. Their abstract and representational compositions allude to Beasley’s experiences and thoughts on history, labor, and race that have precipitated the exhibition. The sculptures suggest a narrative arc in three parts, beginning with The Reunion, which focuses on the artist’s roots in the South and its land; followed by The Acquisition, which highlights his initial encounter with the motor in Alabama; and finally, Campus, which examines his experiences while attending Yale—where he first displayed the motor on its own. Each sculpture incorporates objects with direct ties to these events and ideas, such as cotton bale strapping and the operating belt used to drive the gin. Through the use of these materials, the works account for the lived histories shared by the artist, the continued journey of the machine, and the greater context of the American landscape.

Kevin Beasley (b. 1985, Lynchburg, VA) earned his MFA from Yale University in 2012 and has been exhibiting his work since 2006. He recently had a solo exhibition at ICA Boston and has had previous one-person shows at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Project Row Houses, Houston; Casey Kaplan, New York; and kim? Contemporary Art Centre, Riga, Latvia. Beasley has performed widely and has been featured in major group exhibitions including the 2014 Whitney Biennial; Liverpool Biennial 2018: Beautiful world, where are you?; Solidary And Solitary: The Pamela J. Joyner And Alfred J. Giuffrida Collection (2017), Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans; Between the Ticks of the Watch (2016), The Renaissance Society, Chicago; Greater New York (2015) at MoMA PS1, New York; and Fore (2012) at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.

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