Theaster Gates Rising

On October 25th  an invitation-only crowd celebrating the artist Theaster Gates filled the Rose Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel with art, fashion and buzz. Gates has been commissioned as the artist who will create the visual identity for the 2012 Armory Show, to be held March 8th-11th in New York.  Gates’s visual identity work will be used in the design for the exhibition catalog, VIP brochure and bag, and all printed materials.  The artist is also producing a limited edition work which will be sold at the pier show.  Although fairly new to the art scene, Gates, who identifies himself as “artist and cultural planner,” has become a darling of the international art world; he was included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial; in October his solo exhibition, An Epitaph for Civil Rights, opened at Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; and among upcoming exhibitions, “Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art” is planned for February at Chicago’s Smart Museum.

What distinguishes Gates is the breadth of his activities – and hybridity between disciplines of sculpture, art and planning. His largest work (2009) is the Dorcester Project in which the artist acquired an abandoned property on Chicago’s South Side. Aiming to revitalize the neighborhood,  he has developed four buildings into affordable housing for artists, a Japanese “soul-food kitchen”, and a performance space for concerts and readings. He notes, “I use the site and materials of the predominantly Black South Side, or the “forgotten city” [of Chicago] as an epitaph for Civil Rights and for historical and political redemption.”

The socially responsible and multidisciplinary nature of his work is part of an emerging movement among artists and designers channeling some of their energy into actively working to bring attention to pressing social issues such as poverty, famine and water resources. A number are also using their art to call attention to crises and disaster areas,  as well as working directly with members of developing countries to create works of art.  Like the renovation of the 9th Ward in New Orleans,  Gates is generating a transformative act within a blighted neighborhood.

His sculpture comes from the historic history of the Dorchester buildings, physically and metaphorically. Gates observes a parallel between curiosity and creating: “I cannot separate my interest in these structures from the objects that I make.” This is an apt description also of his recent sculptural series, ironically titled “In the Event of a Race Riot.” The work (which hangs like paintings on walls) consists of repurposed wood frames taken from the Dorcester buildings. Each framed box encloses rolled or gathered fire hose that was decommissioned and used to restrain civil rights protesters in the 1960s.

Throughout his life Gates has been fascinated by pottery, particularly based on historic Asian traditions combined with elements of Buddhism. Not only does he turn ceramics on the wheel, he has made a series of watercolors based on Japanese pottery, inscribed in gold with references to Black culture. “To Speculate Darkly” is a musical, poetic performance by Gates and two of the members of the ensemble“Black Monks of Mississippi,” that he has performed in various places including Anderson Ranch in Colorado last summer. The performance centers on the story of Dave Drake, known as Dave the Potter, an African slave who inscribed his pots with couplets, and whose work is highly sought after today.

Theaster Gates  is a seemingly unusual choice for a commercial venture like the Armory Show as he puts a large portion of his sales back into the Dorcester project.  Given his wide-ranging interests and embracing of so many different media and aspects of art-making, it is very encouraging that the Armory Show 2012 has chosen Gates as its visual “representative.” By doing so it is reflecting a return to politically-based work, and a strong message of art’s transformative ability beyond mere commerce and sales results.



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