Theaster Gates enjoyed two triumphs in Milwaukee, the city of beer and brats and, for this week, clay. His most recent success was on Wednesday night at the NCECA Conference, where he gave an astounding performance as the keynote speaker. It was unlike anything this organization has experienced in its 50 years of gathering the ceramic clan.
Gates began with song, a gospel style chant, “Clay Flows Through My Veins.” He had a rich baritone, which he cut with a vibrant undertow of tremolo, providing a slightly ragged texture. At one point he was backed up by a member of his Black Monks of Mississippi gospel choir (who are not all black, nor all male).
Then, he launched into a series of riffs about pottery, race (a tender issue at the 97% all-white gathering), art, life, ethics and again and again, labor. One sensed his great joy at being with a community of ceramists and his jokes were easily delivered with the confidence of a member in good standing.
The last time he attended an NCECA meeting he was an unknown, struggling potter (he had to give it up for a while because he could no longer afford firings. That is how he moved to found materials and his current career). Now he returned one of most celebrated young contemporary artists internationally, a culture star that has been burning very brightly the last few years.
He issued a challenge to everyone to boost attendance for NCECA’s next conference by sponsoring and bringing someone with them who was “other.” “I have done that,” he said, “I brought four white dudes,” and then he got them to stand amongst much hilarity.
Gates alternated between funny satire and tough profundity, such as his moving commentary on the power of invitation. It was a tour de force in both content and delivery. The rousing standing ovation at its conclusion was well earned.
One of the subjects he discussed— and the main purpose of this post— was his exhibition in 2010 at the Milwaukee Museum of Art, To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter. The show came about through an invitation (the power of) from the Chipstone Foundation and the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM).
Reviews of his more recent exhibitions will flow but the reason why we do these flashbacks is that as far as ceramics, CFile want to own the entire 21st century and add posts on important events prior to our beginning broadcasting in 2013. This exhibition is one of the most powerful of the century. If you do not know it, please give this lengthier-than-usual post some of your time. If you feel it, it will never leave you.
After Gates thought about subject, the MAM show became about his identity as a potter and his search for a kiln muse. (Ceramics is his only formal art training; his degree, however, is in Urban Planning). He could not claim Bernard Leach, Hans Coper or even Peter Voulkos.
Eventually Gates found his ceramic taproot (as Leach might have described it) in a pot in the MAM collection by David Drake. He was also known as Dave the Potter and Dave the Slave, a Southern black man who had three owners before emancipation. Dave is described in forthcoming post, so I will say little more about him except that he has paradoxically become one of the most famous, costly and sought after of early American potters.
One reached Dave’s 40 gallon jar through a tunnel lit from above by a collection of old lantern slides, mainly of pottery. The slides came from the art history and ethnological departments of the University of Chicago (where Gates was in the faculty of the Department of Visual Arts). Without making a blatant statement, one might record how few slides of African art there were in school’s image bank.
They got rid of the slides, as Theaster notes, “just because they had digital versions of the same artworks. Also, the university was willing to give them up because they were taking up a lot of space. They were simply no longer used. They didn’t digitize the slides; they just replaced them.” They are housed in one of Gates’ nine project houses in his East Chicago neighborhood.
Exiting the tunnel, one came up against Dave’s pot— large, generous, quietly portentous, with strong handles tucked under the rim. The surface is informally but confidently dipped and splashed with glaze and engraved with one of Dave’s couplets (unusual as as slaves were prohibited from reading or writing); “When you fill this jar with pork and beef, Scot will be there to get a peace.”
It was juxtaposed with other work, ink brush drawings on paper that seem Japanese. They are by Gates’s alter ego, a Japanese potter, Yamaguchi Shoji (a conflating of Shoji Hamada and Yamaguchi prefecture), who marries a black civil rights activist, May, and settles in Mississippi. There he specializes in “making ceramic plate ware specifically for the foods of black people” and the couple hosts dinners where people of all nationalities “came to openly discuss issues of race, political difference and inequalities of all sorts.”
It is an interesting juxtaposition in terms of an identity: Dave on the one side gives Gates his compass point as a black potter, who in his narrative becomes the caretaker of Shoji’s pottery collection, the perpetuation of the dinner tradition, and the heir to making Soji’s Japanese-style pottery. If only all conceptual art was this epic, a construct rife with contradiction, humanity, absurdity and a royal culture-fuck.
The mythic dinners have continued. Gates ran them as fundraisers in his home for his projects called “Plate Convergences,” working with top chefs in the city. And, now, purely as hospitality they happen all the time, “sometimes once a month, often three times a week,” one staff member confided. Shoji must be thrilled.
The night I was there (eating the best soul food in recent memory, a cheese and macaroni that brought rapture to my cheese-obsessed palette) the guests included a dozen Chinese ceramists, one Japanese ceramic professor, a stunningly beautiful and intellectual Iranian woman, others from the West Indies and various white and brown Americans.
Returning to the exhibition, there was a ceramic grid made up of factory seconds, very shallow white porcelain bathroom washbasins from Theaster’s residency at the Kohler Art Center. Each had gold plated strainers. Collectively with the shimmer of precious metal these produce a point of light in each frame, nuggets in the snow, an effect that is gloriously beautiful.
The basins are each named NGGRWR (I read it as “N—r Wash Room”). The N part came form an unexpected source. To make sure he had rapport with the Kohler workers of Northern European extraction (who often had issues with some of the artists who exhibited a sense of cultural entitlement) Gates would arrive and leave within one shift. This was noticed by the workers. They got to know Gates as a guy who came in to work.
He got close to one worker in particular who shared a gesture of closeness to Gates by saying, “I am a nigger, too.” Hence the title of the basins. A black artist a generation older than Gates might have been deeply offended by the breach of racial protocol, given the “only us” rules for the N word. Gates saw this as real empathy and courage; he also understood the metaphor. The worker was trapped by his skill set. The immensely skilled work he did for Kohler is fast being exported to Asia. If he left this factory there was no place to go. “I, too, am owned by a family,” he added.
The porcelain grid was more than just beauty and its racial context, it was also functional but not in a bathroom sense. The panel served as a giant, wonderfully resonant speaker in porcelain that tuns out to be an exceptional conductor for sound. It was linked to a large screen video projected diagonally opposite.
The video is of gospel singers, gathered for this project to sing the couplets and poems of Drake (Sella My Wares and Other Heavenly Selections one woman sang on the cusp of agony) against music composed by Gates. They became the Black Monks of Mississippi. They still perform all over the U.S. under direction by Gates.
There were two black basins on steel pedestals that connect with Dave the Slave by race. On one a text has been applied in gold overglaze in a font traditionally used to stencil addresses on shipping crates. It read, “My Name Is Product.” This could be a fitting summation of the exhibition and, indeed, it is darkly speculative.
Two more works need comment.
Ship To is a gold pot and here I make two assumptions. First, it was thrown by or for Theaster. Secondly, like Product, it deals with the trading of labor whether from one plantation to another or one factory to another. Could it reference the fact that for Drake’s owner Drake was worth money as slave, plus Drake’s sale would earn a bonus for being a skilled potter? Thus the wheels on which the pot stands allowed it be to trundled off easily to various owners.
Finally, despite all the social reality one has been subjected to, A.N.N.A.P. (Association of Named Negro American Potters), a large relief sculpture, allows one to leave with a wry smile. An essential part of Gates is the entertainer. Almost every word on this faux union seal evokes a painful truth and chuckle at the same time. You will notice that “SHINE EQUIPMENT” is one of the black potters activities and skills. Gates has used old shoe shine stands to disturbing effect in his art. Who is enthroned and who kneels?
Does this work trivialize the serious subject of race? Not at all, in fact the piece is sly, a stealth message leaving the profound intact; it is more barbed once the laughter subsides.
It also brings us full circle, back to the venue for his keynote that began this post. A.N.N.A.P. is Gates’s answer to the white-dominated NCECA. Yet, if he recruited all the black potters at the Milwaukee event he might have had eight members including himself.
Laughing about these numbers with him at his home he remarked, “maybe I should really do this, get brothers who have ceramic skills to teach in their community. Let them communicate the gift of clay. Maybe I should create a studio for this.” Another project is being being born.
Theaster Gates is profiled in a second piece by Garth Clark in our next issue, as is David Drake the slave potter. In addition, “Video | Theaster Gates Projected” will present a program of ten short videos and films. Below you will find a links to an exceptional article about Gates in the New York Times.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: A portrait of Theaster Gates in one of his Chicago project spaces taken a few days after his NCECA keynote address. Photograph by Stephen Lee, director of the Archie Bray Ceramic Art Foundation, Helena MT.
This post is designated a Seminar Post for higher grades in high school, art school and university art departments. It serves as a discussion, a thesis and course material.
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