written by Jessie Aufiery
“In the same way that people write off clay as useless, nonessential,” Theaster Gates (the Chicago-based artist on the brink of art-world superstardom whose work may currently be seen at Miami’s Locust Projects) said to members of the press, “this humble material is the root of modernism, can rebuild our cities, can revolutionize the art world.” Gates, who received an interdisciplinary master’s degree in urban planning, religious studies and ceramics, said his first love was clay. When he began making art, he said, it seemed many contemporary artists “wanted to be born in a conceptual regime”. “Craft,” he continued “is a counter argument to not knowing how to do anything.” Gates (who cited three loves: “the Lord, being busy, and, when things work out that shouldn’t work out”) makes work that is very much concerned with thingness, or, in his words, “things that go on to help other things work out somewhere”.
At the front of Locust Projects’ exhibition space is a red-white-and-blue-wheeled cart whose neatly planed interior is sectioned into display boxes. Inside these boxes are elegant handmade ceramics: milky-white drinking vessels, bowls, vases—all partially embedded in a substance that looks like hardened tar. Submerged in tar to the waist is a lone figure, an antique-looking black woman in a prim-collared blue dress, hair curtained back from her forehead, pulled into a schoolmarm bun, arms raised, perhaps in supplication or maybe to lead a choir in song.
The piece has a feeling of age, the hand-hewn wagon and flag-colored wheels evoking history, a bygone era of craftsmanship, the politics of identity and race.
In the central space we find a long wall of wooden shelves, rows of tables, a pottery kiln. This is a workspace. Bricks will be made by hand, Gates explained, “the way they do in Morocco, Tanzania, parts of Spain, parts of India—all you need is some old wood, a couple screws, some clay”, as will many more examples of the lovely milky ceramics. For the duration of the exhibit, several Japanese potters will be hard at work, as will Matt, the affable mustachioed artist Gates brought from Chicago who guided me through the process of making my own reasonably symmetrical brick. Also slated to appear: a yoga instructor, a bilingual reader, a DJ. Gates is interested in the politics of manufacturing, the ethics of work. “Production,” he said, “equals an act important unto itself.”
Gates has spent the last few years buying and reinvigorating houses on the street where he lives in Grand Crossing, and the City of Chicago recently gave him a building to work on as a way to revitalize a neighborhood. So, what will become of these things—these rows of beautiful ceramics and brick—once the exhibition is over? Swinging a wood-framed brick from hand to hand, Gates paused a moment before answering: “I think I’m going to build a building with this. Make things with other things.” There is little doubt he will do just that.
Theaster Gates’ show Soul Manufacturing Corporation launches Locust Projects’ 15th anniversary, and may be visited from November 10 – December 21, 2012.