LOS ANGELES — Theaster Gates’s But To Be A Poor Race at Regen Projects is an exhibition of counterpoints — of contradictions and balances. Gates’s new work is timely, parsing out problematic social and cultural norms to subtly but wholly subvert them. The exhibition title references W.E.B. Du Bois’s seminal 1903 book of essays The Souls of Black Folk, which celebrates black humanity. Walking into the gallery, sculpture and painting unfold across three rooms, with a video and several ceramics presented in separate galleries. In addition to works from the past two years, Gates created a series of paintings on-site based on Du Bois’s statistical visualizations of black American advancement from Emancipation to 1900.
The paintings are on thin sheets of aluminum, making them appear as extensions of the wall itself, gravitating off it with a presence and creating a slim shadow. The backgrounds of the paintings are a stark white, but have a raised, dappled texture that distinguishes and lifts Gates’s minimal, abstract forms, giving their symbolic associations even more weight.
“Ex Slaves, Slaves” (2017) is striking; it is a square that tightly contains the color within it. A jagged line divides it and runs from the upper left to the bottom right, wavering at the top before sharply plummeting. The line separates fields of uniform, ominous black and fast, intense green — ex slaves and slaves. “Frenzied Negro Adventures with Red” (2017) looks like a slice from a painting by Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman. The left edge is uneven, but seemingly perfectly so; the form is studied and feels sterile, but it is the striated, agitated brushwork within this anonymous silhouette — perhaps the people behind the statistics — that drives home the split between slaves and free blacks. Both works are completely pared down, uninflected and unfeeling at first glance, but then revealed to be full of sentiment, deeply human, and poignant.
The paintings showcase Gates’s interest in and command of forms and their materiality, and ask us to consider how specifically his work is sourced. Gates uses historical and personal material to make the work not only symbolic, but actual, giving it a felt resonance. His works using decommissioned fire hoses invoke the history of the Civil Rights Movement, recalling both when hoses were turned against blacks in Birmingham in 1963 and the bombing of the Fifteenth Street Baptist Church the same year. He reclaims wood from school gyms, shoe-shine stands, libraries, water towers, and other public places to give them a new purpose in abstract compositions. Gates salvages material imbued with a past so viewers can consider its context then and now.
Gates’s sculptures made from bound volumes of Jet magazines, an African American weekly published from 1951 to 2014, also demonstrate this reclaiming and elevating of old materials. “Like Space on a Page” (2017) is a long, stern, black strip of bound volumes with a poem written by Gates embossed in golden text across their spines. The phrases create visceral images in your mind — “BLOOD IS BLUE FIRST,” “HUCKLEBERRIED” — but then you realize certain phrases build together with a cadence:
TIME FOR YOU / GOOD MEANING WHITE PEOPLE / ALL OF YOU / CONSERVATIVES TO UNDERSTAND / TO BE A POOR PERSON / IS HARD / BUT TO BE A POOR RACE IN A LAND OF DOLLARS / THE VERY BOTTOM / OF HARDSHIPS.
Phrases stand alone and then don’t — the entire piece is one and whole, constantly reshuffling, but it ends on a pointed, bitter note, as if the words were spat out: “BUT TO BE POOR / MOTHER FUCKER.”
The Jet works take time, which is their strength and their weakness. Their minimal appearance makes them easy to overlook; it is hard to let the words and references sink in. But when you do, their form as something refined, bold, and sure — something that quietly hums, something that allows you to traverse them until you are struck by a loaded phrase — is what makes them so unexpected and disarming. The books’ spines read like protest signs. Gates arms thought and the written word; he disseminates them as calls to action.
Gates’s call is experienced directly in “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (2016), a seven-minute video that considers how political action is expressed. In it, we have front row seats to a small church stage. Gates emerges and saunters on stage assuredly, flanked by two percussionists who begin by laying out a fuzzy bass beat, accompanied by piano. It’s gospel, energized. Gates wobbles and shakes, dancing oddly from left to right, pivoting on his feet. His eyes are closed and he belts “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” with a guttural voice. He swings his hands in a serving motion, and juts his head in steady allegiance to the beat. Is this a parody of overwrought patriotic performance? At the end, Gates lets out his breath, bites his lip, and closes his eyes. The percussionists laugh. Was this fake? Should political action be subtle, or expressive? Which is more effective? The line is blurry when change doesn’t happen.
But To Be A Poor Race culminates with Gates’s ceramics. “The Steeple” (2016) is an abstraction, but you can’t help but notice its possibilities — a pointed cone literally whitewashed with plaster. Gates’s direct, personal engagement with the clay is obvious; even its coating cannot hide the facts of its making. The coils are layered on top of each other, forming a lopsided, imperfect, oval shape. Lines have been scored into the glaze, echoing the negative space in the layered coils. The result is a ribbed cocoon, or a church steeple, a dunce cap, Pinocchio’s nose, a hood.
The counterpart to “The Steeple” must be “The Bank” (2016). Placed directly and diagonally across from “The Steeple,” it is stout and gaping. There is a scaly, gravelly band around its neck that is raised in a grid pattern. Leathery, wrinkled drips run down the sides of the pot, creating alternating stripes that reflect a dull, blunt glow. The drips are actually melted glass shards, salvaged from the time local kids broke the windows in Gates’s Chicago studio. He said in an interview with Hyperallergic that the kids may have vandalized his studio because they didn’t believe blacks could be artists with a space like his. He’s now given those kids a space in the studio.
“The Bank” refers to the Stony Island Arts Bank, a dilapidated bank in Chicago that Gates renovated into a library and arts center. “The Bank” is a functional vessel, but its presence is also a record of something having been shaped, fired, and created. Its process is personal, but its creation is the result of communal circumstances. This conflation of individual and social histories echoes throughout Gates’s work, evoking another type of activity that brings people together and takes time to shape: political change.