Art

Theaster Gates Interrogates the Human Experience Through Three Startling Manhattan Declarations

Theaster Gates portrait by Sara Pooley. Image courtesy of the New Museum.

In 2005 Theaster Gates returned to Iowa State University from Tokoname, Japan. He had just completed a ceramics residency with master potters, and the reappearance at his alma mater was the academic culmination of his elemental interests: urban planning, religious studies, and ceramics. Over the next decade and a half, this interplay between concept and medium—particularly as it applies to Black identity—has captivated the artist’s interests, urging his endeavors inside his native Chicago and governing his multi-disciplinary practice. Happening upon his visual pieces or moving through his architectural and experiential works, you can feel it for yourself. Often Gates builds worlds by reenvisioning relics from distant or—often and—charged origins, such as his 2012 dOCUMENTA (13) installation 12, “Ballads for Huguenot House” in which he renovated an abandoned German hotel via industrial materials from Chicago’s South Side, or—for a different scale—his on-going “Civil Tapestry” series in which the artist stitches decommissioned fire hoses into colorful tapestries. In doing so, these interrogations, along with his sculptural objects and tar paintings, not only attempt to reckon with the past, sometimes they seem to rewrite it. As such, Gates describes his most recent and most comprehensive showing “Young Lords and Their Traces” as an “accumulation of ideas that are finally starting to make sense through materials.” The mid-career retrospective at the New Museum opens on the heels of another exhibition in New York City—“Vestment” at Gagosian’s 976 Madison Avenue gallery and, much further down south, a programming residency at Metrograph theater beginning this week entitled "The Trace" that, as he says, offers him “an opportunity to share a set of filmic relationships that were underexplored.” Varied in cultural and physical geography, the three occurrences are dedicated to Gates’s various chapters of practice, revealing the artist’s complex attempts to intellectualize, understand, and, in many ways, salvage the human experience by any means necessary.

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