Art

St. Peter’s Basilica Meets the Black Panthers in a Contemporary Altarpiece

Kevin Beasley’s installation feels sublime and sacred in its grandiose silence.

Hammer Projects: Kevin Beasley, installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (all photos by Brian Forrest)

LOS ANGELES — The Vault Gallery at the UCLA’s Hammer Museum is named after the classic arched architecture that informs the shape and structure of many houses of worship. The installation Hammer Projects: Kevin Beasley currently occupies the aforementioned hall, and the atmosphere is appropriately hushed. A thick black curtain encased in an exoskeleton made of knotted do-rags is suspended heavily from the high ceiling, tempering and softening the noise from the museum’s open courtyard. The room is darkened. Eyes take a moment to adjust. Visitors whisper.

After padding softly around the curtain, the viewer is confronted by an altar that has been carefully arranged and spotlit in the apse. A single wicker peacock chair, raised slightly off the floor on a platform strewn with clothing, is centered on a diamond-patterned rug and flanked by a number of floating housedresses — shellacked phantoms with invisible bodies. Headless hoods face the audience. A pair of sweatpants halfheartedly hovers. A thin, molded figure clutching a black and red shield sits by each armrest. A flaming scarlet and gold sunburst hangs above and behind the throne, feathers dispersed across its shiny surface, a grate placed over its rectangular frame. More veils in florals and paisleys encircle the altarpiece.

Hammer Projects: Kevin Beasley, installation view

The mournful surroundings suggest that these garments are widows’ weeds. All the fabric ghosts seem to be covered in a liquid sheen. Beasley often utilizes a concoction of polyurethane foam and resin to give three-dimensionality to materials that have less structural integrity. Though not cast in luxurious metals, his figures are prepared to weather the storm.

Hammer Projects: Kevin Beasley, installation view

For this installation, Beasley lifted inspiration from two sources: the 17th-century Baroque altarpiece designed by sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini at the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and a photographic portrait of the Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton sitting in a rattan peacock chair. The relic of Saint Peter’s wooden chair is enclosed in an ornate bronze sculpture at the center of the altarpiece, supported by four saints whose robes swish and drape dramatically. The ceiling apse is outfitted in gilded stucco, and the opulent materials used reflect the spare-no-costs attitude of the Vatican: colorful marbles, stained glass, gilded bronze. Bernini’s lavish décor symbolically reflects the power and endurance of the Church. The portrait of Newton, created centuries later, shows the man straight-backed on his throne, which sits upon a zebra skin, clutching both a spear and an automatic weapon. As art historian Jo-Ann Morgan notes, “the misé-en-scène also flirts with mythology of the nonwest — tinsel town meets National Geographic.” The photograph has been reproduced and circulated widely since the late 1960s, and has become an image that reflects the authority and legitimacy of the Black Panther Party.

The composition of Newton’s portrait is rooted in Western visual tradition but instantiates power through a fantastical staging that complicates what is expected through its deliberate presentation. Beasley inquires, “What does it mean to replace Bernini’s chair of Saint Peter with the chair of Huey P. Newton?” With this installation, he challenged himself to reconsider the role of power through this exchange. His work often deals with the intersection of materiality and sound, and sound’s ubiquity (both its presence and non-presence) helps shape the experience of moving through a space. At the Hammer, the space feels sublime and sacred in its grandiose silence.

Hammer Projects: Kevin Beasley, installation view

Hammer Projects: Kevin Beasley continues at Hammer Museum, UCLA (10899 Wilshire Blvd.), through April 23.

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