Creative polymath Theaster Gates opens his first solo exhibition in New York

Theaster Gates merges facets of art history with cultural recovery in his new exhibition, “Black Vessel” at Gagosian New York

As widely recognized as the creative polymath Theaster Gates is, his latest exhibition in Gagosian New York, meaningfully titled “Black Vessel,” is still the artist’s very first solo show in the Big Apple. A majestic display of sculptures, clay vessels and works on canvas, the exhibit showcases Gates’ poetic ability to overlay facets of the history of art, sound, racial ideology, black culture and history in a practice that represents both social empowerment and cultural recuperation.

For this memorable exhibition, Gates presents four genres of works. In an ode to the title of the exhibition, he first assembled a collection of 30 vases, each unique in size, shape and shape. With an eye viewing the ship as an archetype through the canon of art history, Gates creates his own versions as a metaphor for contemporary existence, as one would expect.

“I always find myself returning to the ship. It is part of the intellectual life force of my practice and it precedes all other forms of fabrication, ”he says with a nod to his training as a potter.

Theater doors, Ship # 2, 2020, © Doors of the theater; photography; Chris Strong; courtesy Gagosian

In Gates’ hands, the universality of the container as the repository of a ritualized meaning is put forward. His large-scale series of pieces, crafted from glazed and fired clay, draw not only on ancient traditions of Eastern, Western and African origin, but also on contemporary aesthetics. Free-standing or combined with specially designed plinths and plinths, the range of shapes and silhouettes escapes time and space with their wonderfully varied textures, surfaces and tones.

The display of archaeological-type ceramics is poignantly counterbalanced by the West Gallery – a wraparound chamber made of black bricks, recycled from leftover inventory, which stands almost like a ship itself. Completed by a sound installation written by Gates, the installation adds another spiritual dimension to the visualization of sculptural objects.

Intervening with space is also the foundation of another striking work, Prayer while walking, which has been running since 2018 and uses an extensive historical collection of published books on the black experience. The tomes are nobly displayed on vintage Carnegie cast iron shelves that transform a library frame into a place of worship.

Above: ‘Black Vessel’, 2020, installation view. Below: Prayer while walking, 2018-20, detail. © Doors of the theater; photograph: Robert McKeever; courtesy: Gagosian

Speaking of his dynamic approach to his work, Gates shares, “My body is capital, my brain is capital, my hands are capital, and the byproducts of my hands are capital. And once I understand my own value, I think about the spatial value, the value of others, the value of people working together, the possibility of an exponential value resulting from the friction of certain body types. against each other.

The final installment of the exhibition, a suite of tar paintings inspired by Gates’ father’s livelihood as a roofer, sees the artist manipulating typical building and construction materials like industrial enamel made from oil, torch rubber, bitumen and wood, imposing large-scale wall works that echo the style of post-war American artists.

Dynamic, self-referential and beautifully executed, the four-part investigation of Gates’ artistic practice is a captivating assurance of the depth to which he is ready to go. §