When Kevin Beasley first showed a series of artworks involving basketball jerseys hardened into pointed forms, he couldn’t possibly have conceived of the conditions that surround them now. Their origins date back to 2017, when the world seemed at least a little bit more fancy-free. But even then, the writing was on the wall for offerings by an artist whose work takes what he calls “the repetition of how we view Black bodies” in their presence and absence as a subject.
“I go back to that work because when I was making it, I was being very pointed about its relationship to protest and how that enters our living spaces,” Beasley said of jersey works that now feature in an online exhibition staged by Casey Kaplan gallery in New York. “There were all these references I was trying to put in and all these things I was trying to do, but I felt like the work wasn’t really seen that way initially, or maybe there’s an opportunity to readdress them. They are still important and still relevant. That the gallery had a desire to revisit them and think about the language around them made me feel like maybe there’s work that hasn’t been done that can still be done.”
Each work in the show features jerseys of NBA players that have been hardened with resin and placed over top panels of acoustic foam that speak to the kind of silencing that can drown out the voices of even prominent cultural stars. The series first appeared at Casey Kaplan in 2017, in a solo exhibition titled “Sport/Utility” that focused on athletics and the culture around them in different ways (via petrified football helmets and golf clubs mixed with a police baton, among other things—plus a stripped and crushed Cadillac Escalade SUV). But the jersey works evince a certain succinctness that resonates after waves of Black Lives Matter protests and crosscurrents of conversations around the return of a professional basketball season scheduled to restart in just two weeks.
“I feel like my read on them has evolved,” Beasley told ARTnews of the jerseys. “They were made in a context where I was trying to see how they would slot into a larger conversation, knowing that other objects would be there as support. Now I’m able to see them more independently and see how they function.”
Each jersey features a name with allusions to more than just the athlete whose embodiment it conjures, starting with a less than common connection drawn between former New York Knicks point guard Derrick Rose and Romeo and Juliet. (“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”)
Of special significance is a work devoted to Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, whose last name connects to subject matter that Beasley delved into deeply for a line of work that followed. “It feels fresh to me to think about it now, having done more extended research for ‘A view of the landscape,’” the artist said of his 2018–19 exhibition at the Whitney Museum that revolved around the wrenching legacy of the global slave trade. “The association of the word ‘curry’ and how spices how have been traded and moved around the world—I wasn’t initially thinking about the implications of that and how deep they actually go. That’s something that has evolved for me by doing other kinds of work around trade and commerce and capitalism. I feel like I’m becoming more and more equipped to be able to think about that and how these works function.”
Beasley said he has come to find a connection between the seasonality of sports and swells of protest that—in a manner both inspiring and dispiriting—seem to come and go in cycles. “It’s a loop that comes around—it ebbs and flows,” he said. “Black Lives Matter is six years old, and we’re still having the same kind of conversations whenever there’s a case of police brutality. Now people are actually responding in ways that these kinds of movements have wanted for a long time. But it’s still the same kind of circumstances. There are still the same injustices that led to this.”
But learning how to look differently, in the service of making more sense of what we see, can help. “The loop intensifies when there are other kinds of events happening or other things that coincide with that can raise the level of intensity in terms of how people respond and how they feel compelled to participate,” Beasley said. “Repetition is something I’m interested in in better understanding, not only how it rises to the surface but what kinds of catalysts can pull [us] out of a loop. In a lot of instances, it’s in yourself—in how you reason and reconcile forces at play. That can break a loop, or change your understanding. Developing meaning, even within a loop, becomes a way out.”
See the online exhibition of Kevin Beasley’s jersey works at Casey Kaplan gallery’s website.