Currently on view at Eva Presenhuber’s New York exhibition space, American artist Tschabalala Self presents Cotton Mouth, her debut solo exhibition with the gallery. Spanning paintings, drawings, sculpture, and an audio piece, Self’s work explores the agency involved in myth creation and the psychological and emotional effects of projected fantasy, often delving into the concepts and constructs of Black life and addressing her work back towards that audience. Embracing a construction that mixes painting and fiber art, her pieces are compiled from meticulous stitching and painted fabric. Each of the paintings in Cotton Mouth was painstakingly constructed by the artist, play directly on notions of multimedia collages, but deliberately negotiating that same tradition as regards a lack of adhesives.
The body of work Self presents in Cotton Mouth is intended to speak to the unique phenomenon of Black American life, and uses its reference systems within contemporary culture and Black America’s past to create new negotiations and explorations of its meaning and contemporary contexts. Blackness is posed by the artist as personal mythology, half fact and half fiction, and understood as the primary embodiment of “modern-day folklore” to use the artist’s own words. A sense of the self as an extended series of narrative arcs and interests runs throughout, informing this idea of the self as a constructed, and constantly reinterpreted, text.
Most of the work in the show is situated in simulated spaces mimicking the home. In the diptych Spat, a couple is engaged in a tenuous conversation, with the female figure on the left cross-legged and facing her partner. The male is on the “lashing end” of the argument, his vulnerable state made apparent by his visible rib cage. In Sprewell, Self pays tribute to the immediacy of honest emotion and intimate romance. The work references NBA star Latrell Sprewell in a #blacklove vignette—a Sprewell jersey worn by the male protagonist in the piece hearkens to the controversial choking of his coach in a pointed demand for agency and poignant expression of fury and resilience.
Self’s narratives are non-linear, proposing a variety of conclusions and introductions. Her paintings thrust words into spaces where speech has been denied. “People say they have cotton mouth when they smoke too much and their mouth ceases to function,” she says. The choice of title is a burdened one, as a mouth that can no longer function serves as a metaphor for the systemic and continued silencing of Black America. Cotton Mouth is a continuation of the lore, which has kept Black people alive, in communion with their history, and alert to the possibilities of their future.
The show closes January 23rd.
– C. Reinhardt
Tschabalala Self: Cotton Mouth [Exhibition Site]