LONDON — 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.
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.
There is certainly nothing precious about his use of roof tar as a painting material. Roofing is a trade the artist learned from his father. Gates is fully at ease discussing, say, torch-down roofing or the use of felt, liquid tar, and high-density polycarbonates. He has explained that to make one of his paintings with tar requires a team of four or five people. And he likens the process to proficient roofing, and not expressive painting. On press day, ceramicist Gates attributed the effect of his wall-based work to the history of glazing rather than that of paint.
So what do the tar paintings resemble? As one can imagine, the relief qualities are sculptural and the tonal density is rich. The warm fields of black hint at aubergine in places and elsewhere evoke the deep blackness which brought Ad Reinhardt to art world attention in the 1960s. With a range of textures and track marks, one might be tempted to call this new body of work neo-expressionist. But this artist has a more pressing concern to bring the world of manual labor into the gallery; expression is not the aim.
What cannot be denied is the overpowering odor of tar that now fills the main gallery. Scent must be the least used sense when it comes to appreciating contemporary art, except perhaps when a gallery has just finished painting a wall white. But roof tar is quite different from a Proustian madeleine. There is a sensory rush, but not one with a ready association for all of us. To the pampered art writer, not to mention the rich collector, tar smells of class guilt. The scent has an exciting, incendiary power amidst the polished concrete and pristine space.
Any discomfort felt here will also be observed by one of the artist’s half-dozen figurines which populate the galleries. These ‘witnesses’ stand some two feet tall, shaped out of an excess of clay that appears to bubble over their vertical forms. Four of them, sharing a calcified whiteness, appear to be in conversation — a discussion begun long before you came into the room; it will outlast you too. The figures’ blankness and diminutive forms unsettle.
A ring of ancient-looking vases only adds to this uncanny impression. 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.
He is also an excellent singer. A film in the first gallery combines a blues lament sung by the artist, accompanied by some intense cello playing. The music, at odds with the hardware peg board and the lingering odor of tar, is nonetheless evidence of a refined talent, who is as comfortable performing with virtuoso musicians as he is heating up roof tar or hoisting up fire trucks. As antiquated as the term might be, Gates is a Renaissance man. But renaissance, or rebirth, is precisely what our cities and our politics need.
Theaster Gates: Freedom of Assembly continues at White Cube (144–152 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3TQ) through July 5.