Tschabalala Self: Cotton Mouth
On ViewEva Presenhuber
November 7, 2020 – January 23, 2021
“Black! pop! culture! Black! America! Africa! America!” echoes the beginning of a 16-minute-long audio piece that Tschabalala Self created for her solo exhibition of new paintings, drawings, and sculpture, Cotton Mouth. “New! America! African! Black! Americana! mythology!” Through the artist’s own voice, a stream of consciousness poetically weaves words, similar to the threads intertwined across her seven large-scale canvases. They show Black bodies making mundane gestures pulled from the course of the artist’s urban life, from Harlem, her birthplace, or elsewhere. They complete puzzles of image-making using scraps of fabric, cut and arranged by Self to yield limbs, genitalia, buttocks, eyes, and eventually souls. She’s a life-breather, a conductor of rushing patterns, colors, and textures that seem effortlessly to transform into people.
At age 30, Self is an artist with an unmistakable visual cohesion, from her orchestration of figures staring over their shoulders, to vibrantly monochromatic backgrounds that spit the characters back at us. Most crucially, however, her chosen technique renders a Self painting unmistakable. Where another painter’s brush could blemish the surface while attempting an eye or penis, Self weaves a thread, puncturing the canvas to mark with strings areas where paint would otherwise bleed. Self’s process is physical and articulate, mending and healing at almost surgical level. In the teal-ground diptych, Spat (2019–20), a man’s meticulously cut-and-stitched ribcage guides our eyes towards his penis, for which Self uses nothing but the thin thread, left loose on the organ’s head. The artist’s handling of the fabric and her penetration back and forth into the canvas with a needle is invisible, yet still critical.
The threads in the exhibition tie Black mythologies to pop culture, which for Self represents contemporary oral tradition while simultaneously continuing undocumented and oppressed histories today. History is a complexly woven thread, she underlines. A nonhierarchical fabric worn by the rich and the poor, denim appears layered in Sprewell (2020), physically and metaphorically. Self uses her old jeans—each folded at its bottom to create a visual contrast between dark color and light-hued lining—to form an über-jean, a steady layering of multiple pants into a thick shield. Their mint condition is deceiving: they’re worn but don’t seem worn out. They’re worn by a man donning a jersey tank emblazoned with the work’s titular reference, NBA player Latrell Sprewell whose career was halted after choking his coach during practice in 1997. The reality of denim pants in America, first an attire reserved for cotton-collecting slaves and later a symbol of mass fashion, is stitched into every pair of jeans sold and worn, including those Self has brought onto her canvas. Cotton is invisible in the painting, yet there it lies, tightly woven into denim, and narrated in a public controversy of an athlete, a publicly expelled Black man. The man in the painting wears a pair of Yeezy sneakers, objects of desire masterminded by another controversial Black American, Kanye West, a rapper and former presidential candidate with a Christian preacher as his vice-presidential running mate.
The show’s title refers to the condition of speech impediment caused by mouth dryness, but Self’s characters declare as much as—if not more than—the artist in her audio recording. In another diptych, Carpet (2020), a man and a woman converse within a yellow-hued domestic setting, marked by two carpets and a lamp, painted by the artist in acrylic rather than stitched. Their fabric bodies are earthy and vibrant and lush—with each piece of cloth Self weaves for an arm, lip, or torso, the bodies gain voice, a topography of possibilities blossoms between two figures. Their voices are not audible at the gallery, but who needs ears to hear Self’s paintings?