In some ways Theaster Gates took the London critics by surprise with an exhibition that (superficially at least) is more about the conventions of contemporary art product related to the favored current memes of art history and visual style than his penchant for the rigors of social practice.
Above image: Theaster Gates, Freedom of Assembly installation view at White Cube Bermondsey, London.
Some, like HyperAllergic’s Mark Sheerin saw it as proof that Theaster could perform as an artist without a theatrical backdrop of activism, certainly a confidence builder for the market:
“Theaster Gates‘s latest show at White Cube is, surprisingly, largely limited to paintings and sculptures. Gone are the two classic American fire trucks that graced his 2012 show here. Gone is the eyebrow-raising ceramic factory that took center stage at Whitechapel in 2013. And there is no announcement as newsworthy as when Gates accepted the £40,000 Artes Mundi Prize in January this year (“Let’s split this motherf**ker!” he said; the money was shared around the shortlist).
“So UK art fans might have the Chicago artist pegged as a generous activist with a gift for spectacle. He is all those things, but, despite the political connotations of the current show’s title Freedom of Assembly, he is just as capable of engaging with art history and exploring family history. As he said at the press view, this show is perhaps the first time his work can speak for itself, which I take to mean aesthetically.”
Time Out, my favorite source of mini-reviews when I lived in London, does not see any loss of content. Eddy Frankel sums up the show:
“His works here paint a pained picture of an America that’s locked in a state of racial turmoil. In the first room, assemblages of bricks, pallets and chunks of metal from forklifts line the walls. A dilapidated section of roofing hangs near the ceiling. Along one wall, display cabinets from a hardware store hang threadbare. Mournful music leaks out of a video piece on the floor. The impression is of a desperate need to rebuild, but a total lack of tools and materials.”
“In the next room, Gates has used old gym flooring to create two big beige tableaux. They’re full of the past, all those feet that have pounded that wood.”
“The final room is the most affecting. The walls are lined with tar-drenched canvases, and the floor is dotted with obelisk-like ceramic and tar sculptures. The smell leaves its chemical tang hanging in your nostrils. The paintings are stunning; big, gloopy, angry constructions of impenetrable black. Gates nods to modern art throughout. You can see the influence of Rothko, Brancusi or Motherwell everywhere.”
“Gates totally gets history – of art, of America, of civil rights. He reassembles it into damning, political works of art, which are pleas, prayers for change. Considering what’s happening in Baltimore, you won’t find much more powerful art in this city right now.”
Mark Sheerin offers a tally of Theaster’s nod to art history, the modern art canon, and to the comfort of art establishment:
“Stepping into White Cube’s imposing South London space, one encounters an homage to Brancusi’s “Endless Column,” an icon of modernism. In Gates’s own fashion, the remake uses reclaimed chipboard. Across the room is a block of 180 bricks, a nod to minimalist Carl Andre whose ‘pile of bricks’ caused so much outrage upon their first appearance at the Tate. In Gates’s latest version, the pile is lifted a foot off the ground by a pair of tines from a forklift truck. Eight more paired prongs climb the same wall, and suggest one of Donald Judd’s steel, wall-mounted stacks.”
“Such work is no bid to become a minimalist. The materials are too redolent of the warehouse and the hardware store. Depending on your perspective they are sullied or elevated by a history of use. Nearby we find a large ‘painting’ puzzled together from an assemblage of varnished slats. We discover each comes from the floor of one of Chicago’s many decommissioned school gyms. By making work with what comes to hand, Gates suggests an affinity for the Italian tradition of Arte Povera, rather than the often-precious approach to materials in minimalism.”
However, I feel that Sheerin gets it terribly wrong when he gets to Gates’ pots, essentially dismissing them as decorative, like flower containers in a parlor:
“At the heart of Freedom of Assembly is an assemblage of these pots, glazed light and dark, sutured with tar, and each on a tall, rugged plinth made from retooled railroad ties. These are perhaps the most straightforward and decorative of Gates’s works: not the most practical vessels in the world, but their making, by hand, leave an impression of the mercurial Gates as a skilled artisan, whose business is gladly blowing up in all directions.”
I see nothing straightforward or decorative about these pots. If anything they are drawing from the vessel’s insistent anthropomorphism to provide ominous sentinels, recipients of violence and isolation, wounded and tarred with all the history of tar in American bigotry (and not just racism).
For me, in viewing the installation images, this is the moment when the show’s title, Freedom of Assembly, comes most fully to life and offers its most poignant and direct tableaux. It is (as Sheering accidentally admits) “the heart,” the human center of the show.
It also raises a different exclusionary issue, taking us back to just a decade ago when ceramics and clay were not allowed to assemble in the temples of art. That may be too literal a reading but nonetheless, once seen, I could not shake it.
Overall while critical responses were mixed (I agree with some of the tougher hits such as the presence of small black figures, they were out of scale and context), his ceramics, whether fully understood or not, received almost universal praise.
The Guardian’s Adrian Searle, was a trifle sour and skeptical in his overall commentary (“the poetry feels troweled on”), but he liked the ceramics. He picked up on their emotional presence and thought that compared to some of the larger works:
“Gates’s thrown and glazed ceramic pots, mounted on rough plinths of reclaimed wood, are better. Their scale feels right. Apart from one or two left bare, most have been dipped in tar or black rubber, or swathed in greasy tarpaper – presenting them less like a wrapped gift, more like something bound and desecrated.
“The individual pleasures of the clay shapes are hidden, swaddled, tarred. Sometimes you glimpse a flash of colour and shine beneath a break in the black stuff. A tiny rhinestone, like an earring, glints from the surface of one vessel. These are all playful in a way the painting substitutes aren’t. They’re like personages under duress.”
What struck me most forcefully was that almost everything Gates discussed when I visited him in Chicago, down to the smallest biographical detail, had been woven onto this exhibition, including his desire to set up a small brick factory in his neighborhood to employ 50 of its residents to make non-standard custom bricks for architectural projects.
While the showman in Theaster had been temporarily restrained (even though his theater is rarely shrill) one does not feel that Gates’ multiplicity of whispered social issues had been compromised one iota. Indeed, their seamless fit as they slipped into contemporary art conventions makes them all the more seditious and perhaps more effective. I see them bursting into song when least expected.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
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