Chopped & Screwed
‘Chopped & Screwed’, the inaugural exhibition at White Cube New York, considers how artists use sourcing and distortion in contemporary practice to resist established systems of power and value.
The exhibition’s title makes oblique reference to the technique of the same name, popularised by the late Houston musician DJ Screw in the early 1990s. The selection of artists included in the show apply similar approaches to medium, form and aesthetic inheritances, each challenging, obscuring, undermining or malforming existing hegemonic conditions and prevailing narratives.
The use of elongation, a literal drawing out, is notable in the work of Julie Mehretu. Responding to a moment in time that is defined by the twin processes of urgency and gratification, Mehretu chooses to encumber the original image – drawn from heavily mediatised scenes of world conflict – with soft, layered, notational marks, thereby encouraging the viewer to consider what lies beyond the immediacy of the abstract composition. The act of erasure and illegibility is equally at play in Mark Bradford’s I Can’t Stand Up Straight (2010), a mixed media work whose passages of dense, built-up color and agitations of ruptured incisions confound the ‘inbuilt history’ of the very materials Bradford incorporates – often remnants of billboard posters, magazines and newsprint found in the vicinity of his studio.
The material manipulations of David Hammons also partake in tactics of refusal and inscrutability. In Air Jordan (1988), a tire is slashed and barnacled by rusted bottle caps that are bent to mimic the form of cowrie shells. In its economy of form and gesture, Hammons makes sly reference to the interrelations of sports, sexuality and masculinity.
A similar instinct towards the illegibility of an image is at the heart of Pope.L’s ‘Skin Sets’, in whose practice techniques of obfuscation are also central. In Occluded Middle (2011/22), torn book pages from Betty Wood’s The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies (1997) are applied to the picture plane, pointing to the origins of chattel slavery and the Middle Passage. This deconstruction of source material creates a distorted corpus of language that chronicles histories of slavery. Combining landscape drawing, note-taking and an assemblage of studio objects, Pope.L references the performativity of action painting by drawing through the ripped paper, which disrupts the reading of the text. As the title infers, Pope.L’s navigation of ‘Blackness’ – as a racial category subject to both hypervisibility and invisibility – foremost departs from strategies of opacity.
The idea of interference is performed differently in Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s A MERCY IV (2023), a wall-based work which employs the readymade to investigate dynamics of power. Comprising the head gate of a cattle squeeze chute, McClodden interprets this structure as a point of arrival, considering the mercy offered by this contraption which is used to restrain and placate cattle in preparation for slaughter. There is, perhaps, a confrontational quality to the object – the implied violence to this act of restraint tempered by the seductive quality of the hand-painted matte black surface – which invites the viewer to question their own relationship to power, dominance and submission.
A sense of the contradictory nature of displaced objects, of the absurd even, is evident in the work of Mona Hatoum. In Still Life (medical cabinet) I (2023), jewel-coloured, handblown glass grenades populate a glass-fronted display cabinet. The rows of ornamental objects whose fragile forms evoke capacities of violence and destruction impart a dark humour. Both the glorification and commodification of war are present in this work. This engagement with the complexity of conflict, whether at the hands of the state or the mob, can be discerned in Michael Armitage’s painting Mimi Ni Mwizi Ya Soko (2023). Depicting a serpent-clad figure standing behind a market thief, their face flushed puce and a sign reading ‘I Am A Market Thief’ in Swahili around their neck, the composition evokes the scene of a lynching, and like McClodden’s head gate, intimates the relationship between executioner and executed, the oppressor and the oppressed.
Similar themes of violence inform Philip Guston’s drawing Inside (1969) and Theaster Gates’s tapestry, Civil Color Spectrum (2023). In Guston’s work, hooded figures in Klansmen’s robes are rendered lumbering and buffoonish. As an artist who grappled with personal complicity in the legacies of White supremacy, Guston’s charcoal drawing externalises uneasy identifications with evil – a commitment that continues to provoke a re-examination of one’s selfhood. In contrast, Gates’s brightly hued fire hoses are reduced to panels of colour and form that correspond to the vocabulary of Modernism. These decommissioned hoses are defunct conduits, having been emptied and flattened into colour field ‘paintings’.
General Idea, like Gates, reference formalist techniques in their pursuit of knowledge as a discreet form of ammunition. Great AIDS (Black) (1991/2019) hails from the Toronto-based collective’s prolific body of work, created in response to the silence of elected officials during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, many of whom would never publicly acknowledge the disease as it spread worldwide. This artwork, with its muted and estranging inky depth, is a direct reference to Ad Reinhardt’s ‘Black Paintings’ and Robert Indiana’s ‘LOVE’ series, both of which were created to counteract such denial by rendering it visible.
Carol Rama was born in Turin, an automakers town in Italy, where she spent most of her life. Working within a fascist state, Rama’s work was a direct rejection of bodily ideals. She placed eroticism and desire at the core of the work, referencing late-Surrealism and elements of Arte povera. Presagi di Birnam (Omens of Birnam) (1977), comprised of deflated tubing hung haplessly against a black background, serves as both a humorous allusion to, and direct questioning of, the role of masculinity and the impact of industrialisation.
Through their practice, Ilana Savdie and David Altmejd consider the fragile relationship between host and parasite and Man and beast respectively. In monochrome works on paper, Savdie’s volatile and fluid figurations appear to gestate within embryonal hollows whose borders are similarly unstable. In their fusions of form, which the artist describes as an ‘alphabet’, viewers detect details of fingernails, claws and cellular patterns among amorphous regions of interpenetrating flesh, imaging a restless abstraction of parasitical relations. The uncanny, interspecies grotesquery of Altmejd’s sculptures also thrive in the convergence of life-forms, where metamorphoses challenge the sovereignty of a human or animal body. In these twinned sculptures, Altmejd wrestles with the Jungian theory of the collective unconscious, where ancestral memories become archetypes which establish instinctual behaviours. In their mutated forms, each bears the evocation of the unconscious as a mercurial hinterland.
As more light is shed through historical accounts on the dynamics of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King’s relationships, accusations have emerged of his infidelity and the subsequent sequestering of this narrative for a greater purpose of progress for Black Americans. In Fighting Kings (2023), Nathaniel Mary Quinn uses a collage-like painting style to reveal the tension between the couple. Through a deft draftsmanship, the viewer is encouraged to question what is taken to be true and to consider the heightened, and often hidden, power dynamics at play in public relationships.
The oft prophetic nature of the works in ‘Chopped & Screwed’ offer a window into the ongoing wrestle that can exist between institutions of power and our subjecthood. Robert Gober’s Untitled (Drain) (1993) – a recreation of the everyday sink or shower drain in chrome-plated bronze, and a recurring motif in Gober’s oeuvre – is marked at its centre by a cross. Examining the symbolism of Gober’s use of the drain, with an understanding of the artist’s troubled relationship with Catholicism and his struggles with his own queer identity, the object becomes highly symbolic. Drain conjures the corporeal as it evokes the unseen channels through which waste travels, while its cruciform detail points to an industrialised religious symbolism that pervades domesticity.
The 16th-century French relic of a wounded Christ, re-cast by Danh Vo, is an artwork that similarly addresses conflicting identities and senses of self. Stripped of its religious function, it serves as an affirmation of Vo’s interest in the influence of institutions on collective and individual identity. In Untitled (2016), Vo explores structures of power through a simple packing box with a bygone American flag applied to its interior in gold leaf, the Budweiser logo decorating its exterior. With its ubiquitous cardboard ground, this artwork represents an elegiac consideration of the paradoxes and tensions between sovereignty and globalisation. Like Vo, Georg Baselitz considers the fragility of an established order, particularly as it relates to Germany’s history as both a military and economic superpower. In Francis in Willich (2023), Baselitz draws on the charged symbol of the eagle. The bird, associated with conquest and heroism, is typically represented soaring to the heavens, but in this work, the wings of the eagle are folded, rendering it static and submissive.
The uprooting of established structures often leads to a collective anxiety, a sentiment captured so vividly by Christian Marclay’s ‘Scream’ photographs (2020). Their faces splintered and fractured, Marclay’s works on paper articulate the impact of a silent scream. The final work encountered in the exhibition is a window to another world, upon which Adrian Piper has inscribed the words ‘Everything Will Be Taken Away’. This direct declaration carries a gravity that is, perhaps, liberating in its matter-of-factness.
Each of the artists presented here interrogates the power inherent to archetypes, whether material, structural or symbolic. Through the deliberate application of sometimes clandestine methods, both subtle and exacting, and often starting from familiar motifs and objects, the use of sampling becomes a transgressive act that speaks of the conflicts of contemporary life. In turn, their reconfigurations constitute alternative readings to both conditions of power and realities of living.
David Altmejd, Michael Armitage, Georg Baselitz, Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates, General Idea, Robert Gober, Philip Guston, David Hammons, Mona Hatoum, Christian Marclay, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Julie Mehretu, Adrian Piper, Pope.L, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Carol Rama, Ilana Savdie and Danh Vo.
A Southern Magnolia Blooms on June 27
The following text and audio recording by writer, critic and editor Sasha Bonét is specially commissioned to accompany the group exhibition ‘Chopped & Screwed’, curated by Courtney Willis Blair, at White Cube New York. Bonét’s essay provides an intimate meditation on the eponymous music genre, tracing its resonances through moments of sensuous embodiment and personal history. Occasioned by both the works on view and the genre’s use of sound as material, Bonét reflects on the affective force and poetic possibilities of distortion.
Sasha Bonét is a writer, critic and editor living in New York City. Her book The Waterbearers: A Story of Black Motherhood in America, is forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf.
The first time I heard a screw tape my older brother had brought it back from King’s Flea Market on Griggs Road. He walked over a mile from our grandmother’s house in South Park where we spent our long summer days. The heavy Texas sun riding his back all the way.
‘Listen to this,’ a command.
‘This go hard,’ a coercion.
But to me it felt smooth. The sounds seemed to crawl out of the stereo that we listened to in the yard under the magnolia tree. Kids weren’t allowed to go in and out of the house, else the humid heat swallowed the cool air. Slamming the screen door. We chose the outside. With the cicadas singing and the groaning of the air condition unit that slouched from the front room of the little blue house, threatening the porch. When we weren’t playing basketball across the yard’s hardened dirt, shooting anything round that we could find into a milk crate that we’d tied to the trunk of the tree, or picking and peeling switches from her limbs for Granny to welt our own, should we transgress, we were being held by her shade.
Screw music originated on the Southside of Houston where we, kin, gathered under that tree in the summer, telling lies and sharing our dreams. Screw music was an embodiment of our surroundings. It told the story of our environment when we couldn’t quite see value in it, nor ourselves. The slow-motion rhythm of the heat waves we saw in the distance. The broad glossy leaves and white blossoms that shrouded us from the sun shifted subtly, without haste. And the deep-throated, paternal drawl of Robert Earl Davis Jr. made me feel like I was floating. DJ Screw had taken the songs we memorized and moved our bodies to in our living rooms, and reimagined them in alignment with Houston’s urban landscape, creating a sonic meditation on slowing up, on savoring. And a terrible beauty was born, a sound that distilled the mantra of the Black southern cultural experience.
A chopped and screwed mixtape is but a collage. A slicing and a stirring. Creeping through a melody so that the listener can linger a bit on the edges of the implicit. Innuendos made visible that may otherwise be missed if you’re speeding by, looking in the opposite direction. A journey of repetition and reversing to encourage the details to reveal themselves. It is said that Robert Earl Davis Jr. was given his DJ name by his closest childhood friend when he saw him scratching his mother’s records with a screw, using the bolt to manipulate the sound. To take what is and distort it to the point that it is experienced as a wholly different form. Work that reframes and transforms and allows the receiver a different perspective. An alternative way of seeing. And naturally, what one sees is merely a reflection of the looker.
The role of the artist lies largely in their ability to capture the mundane, but nonetheless brutal, and render it poetic. Like when you slice your finger on the edge of a page or a blade, it burns, but the blood falls gracefully. And even through the pain, one cannot help but admire the beauty of the drip.
When the artist makes the incision into the ordinary, to break it open and investigate its insides, they invite the light in. A kind of aperture happens, exposing the beauty and the bruises. This is, of course, our deepest fear and our greatest hope as human beings, to be fully seen. To be explored. When you love something, you want to learn every part of it. Screwed and chopped, as both a genre and a form, means one must first carefully study the complexities of the norms before subverting and reimagining them.
And isn’t this what love is in its most elemental form? Taking the time to patiently bear witness paired with the generous offering of space for reshaping without fear of judgement. To see the beauty in a tree as it blooms sweet southern magnolias and adore it all the same while holding the weight of a bottomless milk crate around its waist.
R.I.P. DJ Screw
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‘Chopped & Screwed’, the inaugural exhibition at White Cube New York is now open to visit.
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