Theaster Gates: Freedom of Assembly - Art Collector

Theaster Gates, Clearing, 2014. Wood, rubber and tar, 183.5 x 367 x 14.7cm. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy: the artist and White Cube, London

By Emma Capps

Within the walls of an esteemed architectural college, I once briefly met a well known visiting architect who had the habit of carrying two pens in his pocket, so that, when asked by an excited student to sign one of his many monographs, he would make his mark with both pens at once – inscribing his double sized signature grandly on their much loved text.

Upon entering the formidable environment of the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey, it might at first seem that the artist Theaster Gates is similarly attempting to impose his signature on his surrounds by the most emphatic means possible. On show is a group of sculptures, ceramics, and works on canvas – the most dominant of which are Gates’ tar paintings, which line the largest room of the gallery.

Composed of wood, roofing substrate, rubber, and tar, these heavyset works shine dimly, imbuing the room with their impressive olfactory presence. Framed by these vast canvases, and positioned on roughly hewn wooden plinths, are a cluster of large, tar­drenched ceramic urns which flatter the immensity of the paintings, sharing their dense muscularity.

There is something in the forceful minimalism of these collected works, in their curated coarseness, which could rouse in the viewer an attitude of mild distrust. In a gallery as loftily commercial as White Cube, an artist’s use of archetypal blue­collar materials could run the risk of seeming underhanded, or too parochially bound to the art world (to the exclusion of the world outside). However, there is a strong undercurrent of mindful tenderness that perhaps saves these works from appearing as merely blunt and expensive objects, laden with machismo. First of all, the works were made with the tar kettle inherited by Gates from his father, who spent his working life labouring as a roofer. Although perhaps it shouldn’t, this fact alone softens the effect of the pieces, giving them an air of upstanding validity.

Theaster Gates, Freedom of Assembly, 2015. Installation view, White Cube Bermondsey, London. Photo: George Darrell. Courtesy: the artist and White Cube, London

Furthermore, upon looking into Gates’ practice, one quickly learns that alongside his work as an artist, he is an influential activist and urban planner in his neighbourhood on the south side of Chicago, where (under the auspices of his non­profit foundation) Gates radically upgrades abandoned buildings, turning them into libraries and community centres. This project is clearly an admirable and ambitious one – and the sale of his artwork no doubt facilitates a scale of urban renewal which would not otherwise be possible.

Within the expanse in this show, there is an underlying but distinct feeling of this magnanimity. Amongst Gates’ larger works are scattered groups of cast figures which have the effect of moderating the show’s otherwise outsized scale – gently articulating the humane mission of the artist’s expanded practice.
Recent winner of Artes Mundi 6, Theaster Gates has exhibited and performed at the Studio Museum in Harlem (New York), Whitechapel Gallery (London), Punta della Dogana (Venice), Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and Documenta 13 (Kassel, Germany), among others.

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