To step into Tschabalala Self’s new exhibition, “Cotton Mouth” (on view through January 23), is to arrive in a crowded room—even if, as is often the case in these days of scheduled viewings and social distancing, you are entirely alone—for New York’s Galerie Eva Presenhuber is already well populated with figurative images. Seven new paintings (including two diptychs), nine drawings, and three murals fill the walls. On the floor of the main gallery stand three humped sculptures resembling legs and hindquarters. These figures, whole and fragmentary, some implying motion, some holding their ground, thoroughly occupy the room.
This quality of congregation is characteristic of Self’s work. Last year, at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, she staged “Bodega Run,” which evoked a Harlem convenience store, complete with neon signs, plastic crate, and convex surveillance mirror. “Out of Body,” presented earlier this year at the ICA Boston, was a less specific act of place-making. The crate returned, this time as a sculptural plinth; figures in purple silhouette disported themselves on the wall, as if dancing around the paintings. “Cotton Mouth” continues this immersive approach. As the artist said in a November phone discussion, “It’s important that the exhibition feel like the space of the subjects and not the space of the viewer—that the figures [be] in possession of it.”
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There is an aesthetic philosophy at work here, concerning fundamental dynamics of showing and seeing. Self departs radically from that all-too-familiar state of affairs in which bodies—particularly voluptuous female bodies—are arrayed passively for the pleasure and judgment of the viewer. Instead, as the writer Camille Okhio contends in her unusually insightful press release, the artist creates characters “who, individually and situationally, hold power over their self-presentation and external perception. A power frequently denied to Black American people in their daily lives.”
This is not only a matter of iconography, or indeed, of attitude. Self’s people are supremely self-possessed, dominating their pictorial fields with a degree of monumentality. Yet the complex spatial relations of the gallery in which they sit are equally important in summoning them into subjective life. The trio of plaster sculptures—all made from the same mold, variously sanded down and pigmented to infuse them with individuality—command the floor. Self says she wanted to “give legs to the paintings,” planting the idea that her characters could similarly detach themselves from their picture planes. It’s a conceit further enhanced by the murals, which are rendered in standard wall paint. Simply titled Interlocked Hands, they replicate at enormous scale a motif taken from one of the paintings; the two hands are of different skin tones, perhaps implying some broader cultural conciliation. They stretch beyond, above, and behind the hung canvases, gently invading their display space. Where is figure in this exhibition, and where is ground? The whole room might be construed as one work, or one fictive space.
Conversely, Self’s paintings themselves are made up of parts that exert their own tenacious autonomy. Though executed principally in acrylic on canvas, the paintings also feature elements in dyed canvas, craft paper, and fabric. Particularly significant is the inclusion of Self’s own used clothing. In Sprewell, which shows a couple embracing within a vivid orange interior, the male figure wears the artist’s old jeans, which Self describes as “a by-product of my life, something I had no more use for.” By including the garment in the painting, she says, she was able “to hold on to it, keep it useful to me, but in a different way—as a gesture of affection.”
Self’s use of collage taps into multiple currents in Black art history. Think of the celebrated quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, among them Annie Mae Young and Lorraine Pettway, who similarly incorporated denim work-clothes and other textiles—evidence of lives spent in hard labor within the Southern sharecropping system—into their inventive patchwork patterns. As in those masterpieces of textile art, Self’s stitchwork, scribbled along the seams where various collage elements meet, is both utilitarian and expressive, holding the image together while also making dimensional marks.
While welcoming such comparisons, Self is a painter first and foremost, and her formal decisions are clearly rooted in questions of image-making. She cites Romare Bearden as an important influence; he similarly assembled his figures from heterogeneous materials, and allowed them to float against abstracted backdrops. In Self’s handling, this sometimes creates a stark graphic quality, sometimes a theatrical one, as in the diptych titled Carpet, whose two dramatis personae seem intensely lit. Like Bearden—or his contemporary Jacob Lawrence, whose strong silhouettes she sometimes emulates, or Robert Colescott, whose sardonic wit also finds flashes of correspondence in her work—Self creates characters who seem to be acting out some larger allegorical role. Though inspired by specific people she has known in her home neighborhood of Harlem or in New Haven, where she now lives and works (she received her MFA from Yale in 2015), they verge on the archetypal. As she puts it, “they are themselves, but also many other selves.”
One more presiding spirit for Self’s work is the highly esteemed Faith Ringgold, a sister artist from Harlem, who also moves easily between fabric collage and painting. Self has a rather beautiful relationship to this revered elder. As a child, she deeply loved Ringgold’s illustrated book Tar Beach, and later, as Self gradually entered the art world, she realized that this honored figure from her youth was also a luminary in her chosen profession. The connection runs deep. In addition to the obvious material parallels between their work, the two artists also have a similarly liberated approach to questions of discipline. Unlike some other feminists of her generation—notably, those involved in the Pattern and Decoration Movement, who deployed craft materials to critique genre- and gender-based hierarchy—Ringgold has always blown right past such hierarchical concerns, moving on to the task of building inspirational worlds. Self shares that viewpoint. She upholds the vitality and validity of craft as an expressive language, but says that she has “never been emotionally invested in the work being understood through that lens.”
The emotion comes in elsewhere. In the works of her forebears—Young and Pettway, Bearden and Lawrence, Colescott and Ringgold—joy and pain are inextricable, the intertwining itself a kind of wisdom. So too in Self’s work. Sprewell, to all appearances a scene of domestic bliss, cues an unhappier story through its reference to Latrell Sprewell, the NBA star who tried to choke his white coach in 1997. In Self’s painting, the male lover wears a jersey with Sprewell’s name on it, while a basketball game plays on a television in the lower-right corner: the pageant of Black athleticism, with its mass-media refraction of identity, goes on in the background.
In another painting, titled Nate the Snake, a woman is seen from behind in contrapposto, one sole raised, turning to look past her shoulder. An acid yellow serpent coils around her body, conjuring a mythology as old as Eve and new as Beyoncé’s film Black Is King. And in Pocket Rocket, a cowgirl in all-American red, white, and blue fires a pistol stage right. Both of these latter images trade knowingly in clichés of gender performance. Yet in the women’s tight smiles, and the ominous suggestion of violence—a small “pocket rocket” handgun is, after all, far more likely to be implicated in urban violence than a stage performance—we feel the sheer, exhausting weight that caricature imposes on the Black experience.
The exhibition’s short but potent title directs attention to this same embodied reality. Self explains it like this: “Cotton mouth is when you can’t speak with ease, or are coerced into sticking to a script that you didn’t write. Cotton mouth is the reality that you’re in, because of repeated damage.” That reality can be seen in multiple contexts, from the socioeconomic to the psychological, but Self is most interested in it as a physiological condition. She is an artist making a material world, after all; she registers racism as a palpable force, an assault on the body as well as the mind.
Against that heartbreaking backdrop, the hopeful notes of her work ring out all the more brightly: the embracing couple in Sprewell, the sweet girl shown in Little Mama 2, turning toward her own future against a rosy pink backdrop, or in Fast Girl (a title potentially connoting moral judgment but here associated with sheer energy), the young figure awhirl in a cyclone of her own making. These characters join the more parodic images in the show in a single social fabric. The chorus is echoed in a final component of Self’s exhibition, an audio piece—her first—in which her own voice can be heard among many others, the latter sourced from found audio tracks. The work is made like her paintings, layered together with the seams still showing. This is Self’s particular brand of creativity: she’s a synthesizer, a remixer. She’s assembling a group portrait of contemporary Black America, stitch by stitch.