Theaster Gates taps into his Chicago roots

The com­mu­nity ac­tivist, in­vestor and artist re­con­fig­ures old art-world colo­nial­ism in ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY PHILIP KEN­NI­COTT philip.ken­ni­cott@wash­post.com

Vis­i­tors will en­counter half a dozen ba­sic vis­ual ideas at the Na­tional Gallery of Art’s Theaster Gates in­stal­la­tion. Gates, who has built a ca­reer work­ing both as a com­mu­nity ac­tivist and in­vestor in Chicago and as an in­ter­na­tional art star around the globe, calls this in­stal­la­tion “The Mi­nor Arts,” which refers on one level to his cel­e­bra­tion of crafts­man­ship, man­ual la­bor and the prod­ucts thereof, such as carv­ing, tiling and wood­work.

But “mi­nor arts” also sug­gest a far larger reval­u­a­tion of the way we think of the stuff hu­mans make. It is the arts them­selves — the tra­di­tional def­i­ni­tion of the Western arts as sculp­ture and paint­ing or, in more re­cent years, the con­cep­tual provo­ca­tions of the con­tem­po­rary art world — that Gates sug­gests are mi­nor. Or, at least not as im­por­tant as their in­sti­tu­tional over­lords might think they are.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is in a space the gallery calls “The Tower,” which has be­come one of the most in­ter­est­ing venues in the in­sti­tu­tion, with a freak­ishly timely ex­hi­bi­tion of Bar­bara Kruger’s po­lit­i­cally tren­chant im­age-text works that closed in Jan­uary, and mem­o­rable shows in re­cent years by liv­ing artists in­clud­ing Kerry James Mar­shall and Mel Bochner. It is a con­fined space but it has high ceil­ings, and the chal­lenge to the artist, or cu­ra­tor, is all about be­ing big and bold in a vis­ually com­pelling way while say­ing some­thing pithy, in­tel­li­gent and in­ter­est­ing. It is, per­haps, a bit like writ­ing a son­net: You have a lim­ited num­ber of lines, a lot of con­straints and an au­di­ence that ex­pects some­thing se­ri­ous and per­haps even mon­u­men­tal.

Gates is pithy, and vis­i­tors who know his work will rec­og­nize each of the ba­sic vis­ual el­e­ments as totemic within his per­sonal vo­cab­u­lary. Along one wall, a 48foot-wide and 20-foot-high canted plane of slate roofing tiles con­fronts the spec­ta­tor with both in­vi­ta­tion and re­fusal. The tile work is beau­ti­ful, the tiles them­selves chipped and worn in ways that in­vite sen­su­ous scru­tiny. But the wall is enor­mous, al­most fill­ing the space, and the ma­te­rial is hard, gray and un­yield­ing. The sloped an­gle of its in­stal­la­tion mim­ics both the roof of the church from which the tiles were sourced and a fortress wall, or a dam hold­ing back the del­uge.

Other ba­sic vis­ual el­e­ments in­clude a large wooden panel of floor boards re­pur­posed from an old high school gym­na­sium in Chicago, and ar­ranged to sug­gest an in­ten­tional but ab­stract pat­tern that mixes the lines of a grid with a ran­dom pix­i­la­tion of color; “paint­ings” made from roofing tar spread on Nau­gahyde stretched taut over frames; an ax; a cast bronze sculp­ture ref­er­enc­ing sev­eral African ver­nac­u­lars; and a cu­ri­ously her­metic “li­brary” tower, full of bound vol­umes of Ebony mag­a­zine, and en­clos­ing an­other sculp­tural fig­ure cov­ered in fur.

Many of the ma­te­rial el­e­ments are from the South Side of Chicago, where Gates has bought prop­er­ties and turned them into art and cul­tural cen­ters serv­ing a pop­u­la­tion that has been sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­en­fran­chised, eco­nom­i­cally and cul­tur­ally. In con­ver­sa­tion, the artist ex­plains that the tile roof rep­re­sents a frac­tion of the ex­panse of the orig­i­nal roof of St. Lau­rence Church, a grand brick struc­ture with Ro­manesque flour­ishes and a soar­ing tower that was closed by the Catholic Arch­dio­cese of Chicago in 2004.

“Es­sen­tially, the Catholic Church left the com­mu­nity,” Gates says. So did a lot of other things that a com­mu­nity needs for sur­vival. The floor boards re­call a closed school, and the vol­umes of Ebony mag­a­zine re­call a fad­ing tra­di­tion of African Amer­i­can cul­tural as­ser­tion, an ar­chive of a par­al­lel cul­ture that cel­e­brated its own artists, celebri­ties, fash­ions and cul­tural icons.

There are no neat di­vid­ing lines be­tween the “art” of phys­i­cal ob­jects that Gates cre­ates for in­sti­tu­tions such as the Na­tional Gallery, and the “art” of his com­mu­nity prac­tice, where he has jumped into the real es­tate mar­ket to buy and re­fur­bish build­ings and re­con­fig­ure his com­mu­nity (Gates stud­ied both ur­ban plan­ning and ce­ram­ics as an un­der­grad­u­ate, and he also in­cludes per­for­mance and mu­sic in his con­tem­po­rary work). The “art” of ex­pla­na­tion and ex­pli­ca­tion are also es­sen­tial to what he does. Vis­i­tors who don’t know his work, who aren’t fa­mil­iar with the larger so­cial cri­tique he has de­vel­oped (which seems to be lurk­ing be­hind that enor­mous slate wall) are likely to be en­tirely flum­moxed by this ex­hi­bi­tion, which seems in­ten­tion­ally ar­ranged to sug­gest a col­lec­tion of alien­ated things rather than a web of in­ter­re­lated pieces.

At the cen­ter of Gates’s work is Gates him­self, hold­ing it to­gether with his charisma, his dis­course, his in­vo­ca­tions of his­tory, and his pas­sion for the place and the peo­ple whence he came. He didn’t in­vent this kind of work, which has its roots in the par­tic­i­pa­tory, per­for­mance and con­cep­tual tra­di­tions of the last cen­tury, and per­haps the Bauhaus, too. Artists such as Rick Lowe, in the 1990s, also made their art co­ex­ten­sive with their place-based so­cial ac­tivism, and “so­cial prac­tice” work has been even more cen­tral to the se­ri­ous art world since the stom­ach-turn­ing ex­cesses of the art mar­ket in the past decade and the emer­gence of vig­or­ous anti-cap­i­tal­ist cri­tiques such as the Oc­cupy move­ment that emerged af­ter the Wall-Street in­sti­gated crash of the econ­omy in 2007-2009.

But Gates does this work with a mul­ti­lin­gual panache, mas­ter­ing dif­fer­ent dis­courses (real es­tate, plan­ning, po­lit­i­cal cri­tique, art, the­ory) the way some peo­ple mas­ter dif­fer­ent lan­guages. The dan­ger of this is the pos­si­bil­ity of slip­page, from at­ten­tion on the work, the ide­al­ism, the tan­gi­ble im­prove­ments in the com­mu­nity he in­hab­its, to the artist him­self. Vis­i­tors who en­counter only Gates’s art world dis­course — em­bod­ied in ex­hi­bi­tions such as this one — will get lit­tle from it, un­less they start look­ing into Gates him­self, who he is, why he cre­ates th­ese cu­ri­ously re­sis­tant and her­metic in­stal­la­tions.

The vi­su­als of this ex­hi­bi­tion are ar­rest­ing in two senses: They cel­e­brate in a dra­matic way var­i­ous forms of un­der­val­ued ma­te­rial ex­pres­sion — roofing, carv­ing, wood­work — yet they also say: Stop. There is more to what is hap­pen­ing here than the artist al­lows you to in­tuit from the vi­su­als alone. Per­haps more to the point, they in­vite you both to linger and to leave, to go out into the world and con­front its in­jus­tices.

And yet, once you have looked to Gates, once he has in­ti­mated the larger con­nec­tions be­tween the dis­parate parts of his prac­tice, you are likely to be left with a sense that there is in­deed some­thing sub­stan­tial go­ing on. And it may be this: Gates’s work mim­ics the dy­nam­ics of colo­nial­ism, in which raw ma­te­ri­als from one place were ex­tracted and sent to an­other place, where they were con­verted to some­thing more valu­able, and then sold in yet other places, weav­ing to­gether mul­ti­ple peo­ples in a cy­cle that con­tin­u­ally im­pov­er­ished some and en­riched oth­ers.

It isn’t a one-for-one sim­u­lacrum of colo­nial­ism, but it par­o­dies the ba­sic dy­nam­ics of it. Gates ex­tracts the spent (rather than raw) ma­te­ri­als from a de­pressed neigh­bor­hood in Chicago; adds his la­bor to them in a way that makes them sim­i­lar to the com­modi­ties of the art world; and then he uses the re­sources he ac­quires in the art world to rein­vest in a once “col­o­nized” African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, which ben­e­fits from the re­wards of a sly in­ver­sion of the usual pat­terns of an old and ex­ploita­tive eco­nomic sys­tem.

That leaves the vis­i­tor with one pow­er­ful and lin­ger­ing ques­tion: Does this re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of colo­nial­ism en­rich or de­plete the art world? Is this all about the trans­ship­ment of cul­tural cache out of the cul­tural world and into the neigh­bor­hood? That is the dilemma that lurks in the ti­tle, “The Mi­nor Arts,” for it is abun­dantly clear that Gates isn’t just cel­e­brat­ing once de­val­ued forms of cre­ativ­ity, but deeply skep­ti­cal of the “fine arts” mi­lieu in which he op­er­ates. Is it pos­si­ble to be at once an in­sider and an out­sider, to work within and cri­tique a sys­tem at the same time?

Ev­ery suc­cess­ful artist work­ing to­day faces that dilemma. And Gates seems to re­spond to it by con­fronting the vis­i­tor with things that are hard and sealed up, like a roof or a floor, or col­or­ful con­sumer mag­a­zines re­bound in the bland in­sti­tu­tional bind­ings of an ar­chive. Is it all to say: I am im­per­vi­ous to th­ese ques­tions? Theaster Gates: The Mi­nor Arts On view through Sept. 4 at the Na­tional Gallery of Art’s East Build­ing. For in­for­ma­tion, visit nga.go.

COUR­TESY OF THEASTER GATES, WHITE CUBE AND REGEN PROJECTS/NA­TIONAL GALLERY OF ART

In­stal­la­tion view of “A Game of My Own” (2017), on view in “Theaster Gates: The Mi­nor Arts” at the Na­tional Gallery of Art.

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