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This Artist’s Mechanical Obsession Is on View at the Whitney Museum

Kevin Beasley's latest exhibition shows his deep affection for machines, which includes cars.

When he was working on his Master of Fine Arts degree at Yale in 2011, Kevin Beasley went to Virginia to visit his relatives. Though he grew up in Lynchburg, his family maintained a nine-acre property a few hours southeast, in Valentines. The family hosted regular reunions at the site and his grandparents had farmed there, but that visit seven years ago was the first time the then 26-year-old had seen the fields planted.

“It was planted with cotton,” Beasley says in a phone interview from the Whitney in Manhattan, where his first New York solo museum exhibition, A View of Landscape will open this weekend. Cotton has an extraordinarily laden history for African-Americans in the South, to say the least, and the planting startled him. “It was a very heavy emotional space for me,” he says. “It was something I wasn’t really prepared for.”

On a subsequent visit, Beasley picked some cotton and brought it back to his studio in Connecticut, and the bolls left him in something of a quandary. “I was thinking about how to process it—process what I had just experienced, and actually physically process the material, like maybe I wanted to make something out of it,” Beasley says.

Beasley has a deep affection for classic automobiles. His father is a mechanic and the owner of an original 1972 Dodge Demon. His first car was a 1970 Dodge Dart Swinger. So in order to help determine how to deal with this material dilemma, he did what any old car lover would do: He went on eBay.

There, he came across a motor. “I have the ad, a printout of it, but it was basically, like, ‘Large induction motor, ran a cotton gin, hasn’t run in thirty years, extremely heavy,’ ” Beasley says. The 2200-pound electric motor was in Alabama, and when Beasley ventured down there to complete the purchase, he ended up having a long dialogue with the seller. “He said, ‘I still hear the way it sounds.’ And I asked him if he could articulate that, but he didn’t have the language,” Beasley says. “And that fascinated me.”

Beasley’s work has often incorporated sound. So for his installation at the Whitney, he decided he wanted to separate the machine’s sound from its operation. Working with designer David Tasam, acoustic engineers from BuroHappold, and museum fabricators Goppion in Milan, he created an elaborate glass and metal vitrine to hold and insulate the motor—the baffling foam inside is layered in rows, like a planted field. Silenced, but visibly whirring, the motor’s physical action is thus separated from its effects.

Artist Kevin Beasley. Image: Golnaz Esmaili

An elaborate system of microphones inside the vitrine captures the motor’s sound. It is then manipulated through a synthesizer and piped into a separate room. The resulting aural experience is haunting and visceral—special speakers under the listening room’s benches provide a throbbing tactile kick. Directional speakers on the ceiling make the audio experience distinctive in different parts of the room. The sensation is akin to being rendered, or ground down. (While in Italy working with Goppion, Beasley had very different aural experience. “My first drive in a Ferrari was at the Goppion facility, because the owner had a 612 Scaglietti,” he says.) Three large resin sculptures line the passage between the two spaces, incorporating cotton picked on Beasley’s family property, and comment on his family history, the transatlantic slave trade, and the motor’s acquisition.

Beasley’s love for cars transcends his father’s formative influence. As an adolescent obsessed with drawing and painting, and seeking a profession in which he could put these skills to real-world use, he pursued a career as a car designer. He was accepted to Detroit’s prestigious College for Creative Studies, and even made the selective sophomore-year cut to join the automotive design department. But desiring the ability to define his artistic practice more independently, he, as he says, “walked over to the fine-arts department,” and earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree there.

Kevin Beasley, Sport/Utility, 2017; Stripped and crushed 2008 Cadillac Escalade ESV; 65.5 x 93 x 203 in (166.37 x 236.22 x 515.62 cm); KB2017-033; Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York; Image: Jean Vong

Being a rising art star with previous group exhibitions at the Whitney and MOMA/PS1 and representation by Chelsea gallery Casey Kaplan has not diminished Beasley’s fascination with the automobile. One of his works shown at Casey Kaplan for Beasley’s 2017 solo exhibition, “Sport/Utility”, consisted in part of a crushed 2008 Cadillac Escalade ESV [pictured above], a commentary in part on the brand’s overt policy forbidding direct sales to black owners during its first 30 years of existence, and the subsequent manner in which black consumers, once they were welcomed into the fold, helped to save the marque during the Great Depression. He is the proud owner of a Dodge Grand Caravan, which he describes as “perfect for being an artist. I can stuff whatever I want in it.” And he also has a 2010 Challenger R/T that used to belong to his dad and which he’s since customized.

Image courtesy Custom Shop NYC

“I put a supercharger on it, new cat-back Corsa exhaust, headers, Stop-Tech brakes, an Air Lift suspension. I went all the way,” Beasley says, of the work. He also remains definitively interested in automobiles from a physical and intellectual standpoint. “I’m trying to figure that out, what this thing is about cars, about the way they look, the sculptural form of them. But also thinking about it consciously, and the conundrum,” he says. “My car is now more of a gas-guzzler than it was before. It’s a conundrum I feel like I’m willing to embrace, and I’m also trying to understand what it means.”

Ultimately, the Challenger’s challenge may remain unanswerable. “Maybe I’ll crush it,” Beasley jokes, laughing. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Additional photo credits
Cotton gin images: Kevin Beasley,
Rebuilding of the Cotton Gin Motor, 2016. Digital photographs. Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York. Images courtesy Carlos Vela-Prado.
Dodge Challenger images: Courtesy Custom Shop NYC
Dodge Dart images: Courtesy Kevin Beasley