In Astoria, Queens, industrial warehouses line the entire street where Beasley's studio sits. It's large and white, with colorful and unfinished artworks placed carefully on the floor. He has a sewing table, an area to mix paint and resin, a corner office, and a separate, sound-proof room for creating audio work.
Beasley explains that he's preparing for his next exhibit at the Renaissance Society in Chicago—most of the art had been picked up only the day before. Between The Ticks of the Watch involves five artists, presenting a platform "for considering doubt as both state of mind and pragmatic tool." Additionally, Kevin's latest body, Your Face is / is Not Enough, involves sculptures, gas masks, and megaphones, evoking images of recent conversations in the media on police brutality.
Before earning his MFA at Yale in 2012, Beasley studied at College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Since then, he has been an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, attended the International Studio & Curatorial Program, and has had his work exhibited at the Guggenheim and the Whitney.
Beyond residencies, his studios have always been in Queens. The artist invited me to sit in the yellow flower patterned "guest chair," where we discussed how he worked as a crate shop technician before becoming an artist full-time, and the importance of his Astoria neighborhood.
The Creators Project: What makes your creative space uniquely you? And how does it inspire your process?
Kevin Beasley: I was asking this question of what the studio could be and maybe it's not dependent on the actual physicality of the space, as much as it's about the time or the designation of a space and that you can think about really tough questions and address some vulnerabilities in your own methodology.
Then you get into what is that space capable of. Its physicality. Where the wall meets the floor, where the lighting is situated in the space. And then what type of materials you bring into the space. It's about understanding it holistically, who else is around, who else shares the space with you, or shares a building, the neighborhood, the block. It's hard to think about all of that, but that's the benefit of having a studio or designating a space you call a studio because all of these other questions can then be put into action.
When it becomes very explicit you can look at the path of gentrification and how artists come into neighborhoods and find ways to use it and then it becomes marketable—that's all a part of that consideration on context. It's a particular one that deserves some attention.
A major theme in your work appears to be discovering and observing your place and space in the world.
I ended up generating a piece [at the Casey Kaplan Gallery] that focused on time. It consisted of a reel-to-reel player, a tape player, that would consist of over 5,000 cassette tapes spliced together. There are 50 reels and every tape reel has sound and music on it. And so, 52 of them are about a week [long], so the piece runs for the span of a year, that's the loop. Each new reel is played at the beginning of the new week and at the end of the week, it ends, and then you play the next one the next week.
So the focus is on presence and time in some way striking the value of what that moment is. This moment is your moment, this is when you made it and that's important because you can't re-experience that moment.
My dad gave me a bunch of tapes and came in from Virginia to visit. My dad walks in and then stops and is like, "That's my tape, that's my Freddy Jackson tape." And it was really surreal because there were like 5,000 cassettes and the chances of walking into the room and hearing your own tape, it got weird. The chances of that happening is spooky. But to me there was something important about leaving space for something to be generated in that time period.
Is that a punching bag?
It is a punching bag. I was like "I'm going to get in shape!" I got a punching bag, but at the same time I was doing work for the Guggenheim. What was really difficult for me was hanging a sculpture. I think of sculpture in a bodily way. I think sculpture is defined by how we move around them thinking about mast and weight. So I think, we hang a body, it's lynching. The relationship to that is difficult for me to deal with and that's what the work was dealing with in some way. It was called Strange Fruit Part 1 and 2. And they're audio works with microphone and speakers in them. One of them was on one side of the Guggenheim and the other on the opposite side and they were linked together by microphones. If you spoke in one it would come out the speaker of the other one. There is a conversation and an opportunity for people to engage with them. So the punching bag was kind of a way to see something very bodily in the studio.
Do any current issues inspire or affect your work?
I think a lot of what I'm doing is related to tracing aspects of history and my personal experience. I'm terrified right now. Politics are crazy. We were in paralysis for so long when Chicago flipped over and shut down the Trump rally; that was a moment that the paralysis was over. The finger twitches and it's like we still have agency, we still have the ability to do something. Which is very grassroots and direct, very immediate. What I'm more worried about, is if we make it through this without it becoming disastrous, then can we maintain this sort of rigor and questioning and move towards a much better society.
How does your studio help your process?
This space is new and it looked very different, I did a lot of renovation, things were taken down. The entry space used to be in the closet. One thing I'm learning from having so many different kinds of spaces and that kind of network and community of people I'm around, there is a desire to create space to have a conversation. If that can be contained and supported in the studio, that will just provide fruit for generating other possibilities. The other day I had people over and cooked on the grill and I wanted to share a work with them. The works are a part of a performance that's happening at the Renaissance Society. They put the masks on and they activated them and for me it was helpful and really great to see. I was able to see that in a comfortable space. They are still in progress—they're not finished in that way, so the studio becomes conducive for a more conversational sharing of the work instead of exhibition when people are coming to see something finished.
There isn't that much destination in this space. I could pull a saw out and start cutting something then take the saw down. I could work with resin and mixing cups and I could be mixing up resin or foam or paint, I could do that. There's a sewing table there when I need to alter the clothing or fabric then that's where I'll sew everything, work that process through. I don't have the kitchen set up, so that's where I have kitchen stuff, but I also like to draw there. If I'm saturating or putting wires together, if I'm building or using a microphone, these are components, that stuff happens there.
Tell us about Your Face is / is Not Enough (2016), one of your pieces that will be at your exhibit.
They're gas masks. The gas masks have been something that have popped up in my work before—there is another work that I made; I used a gas mask as a performative component of the work. In this way, I've seen a lot of images of gas masks over the last few years. We've seen a lot of them, but particularly with law enforcement and the kind of militarization we've seen with protests. And in some way, the use of that was a prompt for me to challenge that possibility of what the gas mask is capable of, who it's for.
I ended up making these really complicated masks. This is foam with glass beads on it. They each have a megaphone that corresponds to each one so that you're able to vocalize another possibility in how we see that gas mask. It is some way arresting the power it holds as a visual marker of life, it's like submission. As a protestor, when you see an official in a gas mask, it means some shit is about to go down. They know as law enforcement what their weapons are fully capable of and that's when the gas mask is employed. That's what these become in some ways.
Kevin's Beasley's Your Face is / is Not Enough will be at the Renaissance Society in Chicago until June 25.