‘To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.’
– W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
LOS ANGELES — Starting this week, Regen Projects in Los Angeles is showcasing the work of one of our favorite artists in contemporary ceramics. Theaster Gates But To Be A Poor Race (January 14 – February 25, 2017) continues Theaster’s cross-disciplinary work combining sculpture, painting, sound and performance. Many of the all-new works on display were created by Gates on site and draw on the artist’s obsession with politics, shamanism and object making.
Above image: Theaster Gates at Regen Projects in Los Angeles. Photograph by Laure Joliet for the New York Times.
The exhibition was reviewed by Janelle Zara for The New York Times, who wrote:
The vivid paintings lining the Los Angeles gallery’s walls are visualizations of data gathered by the late black scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois: the numbers of black people in post-Emancipation Georgia who owned land, who were once slaves, who had kitchen appliances and professional degrees and other markers of class. These figures have been beautifully abstracted into semblances of pie charts, swirling line graphs and color blocks. Elsewhere, the fraying, red-and-gray gradations of a wall-mounted tapestry are the flattened lengths of a fire hose, the principal weapon used against black civil rights activists in the 1960s. And poetry is embossed in gold capital letters on the spines of black-bound Jet magazines, lined up at eye-level on the gallery walls in tidy rows:
NOT ONLY PENTATONIC
DARK AND LOVELY
The Gallery explains the background behind the exhibition:
The title of the exhibition refers to American sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois’ seminal work The Souls of Black Folk. Comprised of 14 essays that portray the genius and humanity of the Black race, this publication is considered an important work in sociology and African American literary history. Inspired by Du Bois’ sociological studies on the advancements of Black Americans from the time of Emancipation to 1900, the exhibition will feature a series of response paintings in which the statistical data gathered and made visual by Du Bois has been reduced to abstract color fields and geometric motifs. Both an act of homage to Du Bois’ sophisticated Modernism as well as a reference to the history of art, Gates’ paintings give poetic form to the archival.
“But To Be A Poor Race questions a particular kind of poverty, one that is not just about a lack of economic capital but one that is deprived of the basic elements from which one can make a living,” says Gates. For Gates, sculpture – as a derivative of the minor arts, craft, or the decorative and plastic arts – has been an important historical invention. Throughout Gates’ artistic career and especially during his time at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the need for divine acts to have material and human vessels has undergirded his investigations. The exhibition begins to demonstrate Gates’ thoughtful handling of sometimes imagined African reliquary objects and other historic Black forms, referencing the power that can be honed from ‘poor’ materials. But To Be A Poor Race offers a salute to the possibility of power and beauty.
Gates has held a longtime interest in the conservation, preservation, and archiving of cultural objects, artifacts, publications, films, and music. Part of a larger ongoing project that Gates has overseen is the amassing of Jet magazines, a weekly digest that ran in print form from 1951-2014 from the Johnson Publishing House. Featuring profiles and news stories on important African Americans, the publication also covered the civil rights movement and served as a beacon of upward mobility and inspiration for its readers. Representing an interrogation of the archive, the exhibition will include poems written by Gates and printed along the spines of bound volumes of Jet magazines, forming a catalog of Black thought. Arranged at eye level on the gallery wall, Gates envisions that when the poems are read aloud by its readers, their voices will create a cacophony of sound, chanting the mantra of Black political thought and street poetry of the late 90s.
Serving as a marking point of artistic and formal reflection, the sculptures, paintings, and video on view in the exhibition present Gates’ recent inquiries into the role of painting, history making, the power of material culture, and the polemics of patriotism.
About the Artist
Born in 1973 in Chicago, Illinois, Theaster Gates received a master’s degree in urban planning, ceramics, and religious studies from the Iowa State University (2006). He lives and works in Chicago.
His work has been included in numerous exhibitions worldwide. Recent solo exhibitions include Black Archive, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Bregenz, Austria; True Value, Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy; and How to Build a House Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada (all 2016); The Black Monastic, Museu Serralves, Porto, Portugal (2014); 13th Ballad, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Chicago, IL (2013); The Listening Room, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA (2011); and To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI (2010). Group shows include the Whitney Biennial, New York, NY (2010); dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany (2012); The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel Gallery, London, England (2013); When Stars Collide, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY (2014); Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr, as part of All The World’s Future’s, the 56th International Art Exhibition – Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy; and Three or Four Shades of Blue, as part of SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms, 14th Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, Turkey (both 2015). In 2017 Gates will have a solo exhibition in the Tower at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (March 5 – September 4, 2017).
Gates has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Kurt Schwitters Prize (2017); Smithsonian Ingenuity Award for Social Progress (2015); the Artes Mundi 6 Prize (2015); the inaugural Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics (2013); United States Artists Fellowship (2012); Graham Foundation Architecture Award (2012, 2009); and Artadia: The Fund for Art and Dialogue Award (2008). He is the founder and executive director of the non-profit Rebuild Foundation and Professor in the Department of Visual Art at the University of Chicago.
Do you love or loathe these works of contemporary ceramics and contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.