THEASTER GATES, Vessel # 19, 2020
Theaster Gates has been described as a “social practice installation artist”—which just might mean that he has an entire category to himself. It makes absolute sense as a descriptor, though, as despite the monumentality of much of his work, it is often tied to very real urban planning concepts and social reinvigoration strategies (via his Rebuild Foundation). But he’s also prone to a bit of the fantastical, as with 2007’s Plate Convergence, for which he notably devised an entire and elaborate backstory, which was about how symbolically imbued objects could help to break down racial divides.
His Future Histories (sharing a billing with Cauleen Smith), will open at SFMOMA on October 17. But before then—October 10, to be specific—the Obama fave artist’s first ever New York solo show will be unveiled at the newly reopened Gagosian gallery on W. 24th Street. Viscerally titled Black Vessel, it once again demonstrates his mastery of multiple media and materials, with works like Flag Sketch and Top Heavy intriguingly conjured from industrial oil-based enamel, rubber torch down, bitumen, wood, and copper. (Watch accompanying video here.)
THEASTER GATES, Six Squares Yellow Patch, 2020
But he also uses high fired stoneware in a distinctly illustrative manner, contriving beautiful pieces almost as galvanizers for fraternity and community. He even points to the kiln itself as a kind of congruous gathering point.
“Often I’m trying to figure out, how do you create a social situation,” he explains, “without being preoccupied with the creation of a social situation? The way you do it is you put beautiful people and beautiful things together, and let them do their thing. Black Vessel in this way is the celebration of the relationship between vessels and gathering.”
Also included are a suite of “tar paintings,” conceived on a newly imposing scale, employing bold, contrasting colors, in which the materials used are instilled with personal and singularly symbolic meanings. Gates, it should be noted, came from a working class Chicago family, and his use of materials has at times made reference to his father’s vocation as a roofer. The family was also active in civil rights, something which regularly shows up in his work.
THEASTER GATES, Vessel # 2, 2020
Gagosian Director Louise Neri enthuses that the exhibition is particularly meaningful as the gallery reopens amidst the ongoing pandemic, which has shined a most unflattering light on America’s glaring social and economic iniquities.
“Conceptually and materially resonant,” she observes, “Black Vessel traverses a broad range of media, from painting, sculpture, and sound to the processes of salvaging, archiving, and space making, while delivering penetrating social commentary on labor, material, spiritual capital, and commodity, within a close examination of the urban condition.”
Or as Gates himself puts it, “You make beautiful vessels, and those vessels will cause people to gather.”