Art

Theaster Gates Makes Visible the Hidden Layers of Cities

The collection of never-before-showcased objects materialize the underpinnings of urban livelihoods: commerce, culture, ancestry, trauma, which, particularly for Black Americans, are inextricably entwined.

Installation view of Every Square Needs a Circle at Richard Gray Gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — “It’s a Chicago show,” Theaster Gates tells me as he walked me through his latest exhibition at Richard Gray Gallery‘s Midwestern outpost. After a year of traveling for his high-profile collaborations and exhibitions, he says, “It feels good to be home.”

“Policy undergirds this exhibition,” Gates, who is an art and public policy professor at the University of Chicago, explains. He uses easily available industrial materials to physically craft relationships between land, labor, art, and theory. Utilizing his objects, he’s drawing responses to inquiries like: “How do cities work? How do people work in cities?”

He describes this exhibition as a sculpture show at its core. The collection of never-before-showcased objects materialize the underpinnings of urban livelihoods: commerce, culture, ancestry, trauma, which, particularly for Black Americans, are inextricably entwined. The material and typically invisible layers of cities come to the surface in Gates’s diverse artistic oeuvre, particularly concrete, tar, and steel, which are blatantly featured here. He says, that these things “live together,” and thus formulate a completeness or wholeness (hence the show’s title, Every Square Needs a Circle).

Theaster Gates, “Mama’s Milk” (2018), Metal and light, 114 x 116 x 25 3/4 inches, 289.6 x 294.6 x 65.4 cm

After passing through the entryway, I am greeted by a giant, buzzing neon sign for Rothschild Liquors, a staple in the city. The family has owned these liquor stores for generations, Gates explains, while the landscape of Chicago has changed around them, from the shuffling in and out of different ethnic groups, to the onset of gentrification.

Theaster Gates, “Alls my life I has to fight” (2019), metal, bronze, cerulean granite and carpet, 94 1/2 x 50 x 50 inches, 240 x 127 x 127 cm

His intervention on the glowing symbol of the city staple is to interject in white, cursive neon the label “Mama’s Milk.”  People in poorer communities are “being comforted either by the Lord or by a 40” on Sundays, Gates says, suggesting there is a religiosity to inebriation; a ritualistic imbibement to wash away your sins.

Referencing the caged Black Madonna that sits adjacent to the enormous sculpture, he says, “On Sunday morning, these two live next to each other.” Its title, “Alls my life I has to fight,” is an explicit reference to Pulitzer-prize winning rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” (a Black uplift song which itself a reference to Alice Walker’s visionary The Color Purple.)

I first spoke with Gates about his visualization of social theory through installation, sculpture, and urban planning for an article on W.E.B. Du Bois’s cutting-edge data portraits, which Du Bois unveiled at the Paris Exposition in 1900, as part of the Exhibit of American Negroes.

Du Bois’s philosophy, public policy, and urban planning have long been inspirations for Gates’s work — particularly in 2011 when Gates came across the scholar’s infographics while studying the life of Du Bois, and then utilized these data portraits for a series of minimal paintings that reframed them. 

Theaster Gates, “Slaves, Ex Slaves” (2018), Neon, 36 1/2 x 34 3/4 x 4 7/8 inches, 92.7 x 88.3 x 12.4 cm

He has now begun working the infographics into neon signage: buzzing mainstays of commercial retail and subtle commentaries on urban economies. Only one is featured here: a recreation of Du Bois’s “Proportion of freemen and slaves among American Negroes,” which details the great decline of enslaved individuals after 1860, when the percentage of freemen raises from 11% to 100%. 

“[Du Bois] was attempting to make the truth of Black progress clear to a white world,” Gates explained. “Du Bois allowed numbers and color to make the case and the case he’s made for Black Progress is of the earliest irrevocable signs that resilience is in the genes.”

Theaster Gates, “Every Square” (2019), Metal, clay, stone and wood, 181 x 231 x 218 inches, 459.7 x 586.7 x 553.7 cm

At the center of the enormous, converted warehouse in which this show is mounted is an iron platform, functioning as a modern iron ziggurat. It’s an altar, caged in by imaginary constraints, with the organizational labels guiding its process of creation (A1, B1, C1) still intact, revealing the process of the formation that would otherwise become invisible as cities and structures are built.

Gates is playing with the contrasts of rigidity and fluidity in these sculptures, as he is throughout the exhibition. Both clay and iron are soft before they harden to solidity. Neon gas flows freely inside the hard shell of glass within the brightly-lit signage. The wood, integrated into the platform’s gaps, is staunch but soft to the touch, and ceramic, easily breakable and fragile, rests atop immobile industrial steel an implicit threat to its fragility.

Installation view of “Highway with Mountain,” “Black Rainbow,” and “Arc”

At the back of the gallery is a series of black-on-black, minimal paintings. Gates torched roofing material to canvas made of asphalt to create these labor-intensive objects. He swells with deserved pride when he speaks about these tar paintings, calling the beautiful innovations a “breakthrough” in his practice. You can see his learning curve, and he’s not ashamed of it — each arc on his work “Black Rainbow” (2019) is an improvement on the last as he grows more comfortable with the feel of industrial tools in hand, exploring the possibilities for industrial materials to become art-making mediums, for the manual labor of construction, which builds homes and cities, to perform as art.

Theaster Gates, “Arc” (2019), Rubber, tar and wood, 72 1/2 x 72 1/2 x 3 1/4 inches, 184.2 x 184.2 x 8.3 cm
Theaster Gates, “Black Rainbow” (2019), Rubber, tar and wood, 96 1/4 x 96 1/4 x 3 1/4 inches, 244.5 x 244.5 x 8.3 cm

The gallery feels like a sanctuary, a place of worship, respect, and contemplation that fosters synchronicity between a collection of seemingly discordant and unrelated artworks. Gates is narrating an abstract tale of Chicago’s past, present, and future, making clear the reverence and care he has for its minutiae. His work is conceptual but not illegible, each sculpture in clear conversation with one another about urban livelihood as a whole, and more specifically Black experiences of urban economies shaped by capitalism and modern American culture.

Installation view of Every Square Needs a Circle

Theaster Gates: Every Square Needs a Circle, curated by the artist, is on view at Richard Gray Gallery (2044 West Carroll Avenue, Chicago, IL) through June 29.

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