‘Every Material Has a History or Life That It’s Lived’: Watch Artist Kevin Beasley Transform Fabric Into Narrative Sculptures

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

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

In the hands of artist Kevin Beasley, utilitarian objects become totems and signifiers of lived cultural experience.

In 2018, Beasley’s first solo exhibition in New York City was at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a fitting venue for the debut of his monumental installation “Kevin Beasley: A View of a Landscape,” which centered on a a cotton gin motor from Maplesville, Alabama. The piece of equipment was used to power gins that separated cotton seeds from fiber, though the artist used it as a customized musical instrument.

Now, at Regen Projects in Los Angles, Beasley’s debut exhibition with the gallery, the artist similarly “probes the material and cultural conditions that shape our perception of history.”

In this case, the artist has installed a modified utility pole that holds court in the gallery. He modified it to produce sounds gathered from field recordings from a variety of locations.

Installation view of "Kevin Beasley: On site." Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Installation view of “Kevin Beasley: On site.” Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s “New York Close Up” series in 2019, Beasley reflected on his materials, explaining that the root of his interest in machines like the cotton gin struck him during a family reunion in Virginia. While driving south from Connecticut, Beasley noticed a field of cotton.

“It struck me in a way that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around,” he recalled. “Emotionally it was too heavy, mentally it was too heavy. I was like, ‘Why am I so angry at this plant?’… there’s a lot of unpacking that has to happen.”

In galleries adjacent to where he installed his customized machines, the artist displays “slab” sculptures—wall-like assemblages made from clothing, including a Yale sweatshirt, durags, raw cotton covered in resin, and dye-sublimation-printed fabrics that evoke places of his childhood.

“Every material has some sort of history or life that it’s lived” he said. “They become ways of telling stories.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “On site” is on view at Regen Projects, Los Angeles through June 25, 2022.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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