A video of artist Theaster Gates and his experimental music ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi, provided the bluesy opener for this engaging exhibition, which combined Gates’s own work with objects culled from shuttered buildings in his native Chicago. Gates, who has degrees in urban planning, tackles big issues—history, race, and the fate of cities—in work that takes multiple forms, including performances, installations, and community projects, as well as stand-alone paintings and sculptures made from reclaimed materials.
Titled “Freedom of Assembly,” the show opened with a long, glass-fronted cabinet containing objects salvaged from a closed-down hardware store. Other fragments of dead buildings stood nearby. Pegboard panels had been cut up and formed into a facsimile of Brancusi’s Endless Column, like a totem to mom-and-pop retail. Nearby, a double column of orange-painted steel forklift arms protruded from a wall. They resemble a funky Donald Judd, but also arms lifted in worship. While echoing tropes of modernist and Minimalist art, the works, with their scarred surfaces, are saturated with a melancholic feeling of loss.
References to construction, demolition, and salvage continued in two “paintings” made from planks of gym floors, rearranged so that their original markings are meaningless. A small figure in glazed clay, Black Knockoff (2015), stood nearby as if contemplating the conversion of these fragments of closed-down Chicago public schools into art.
The exhibition’s high point was a group of 13 abstract, nearly monochrome paintings made from wood, rubber, and tar—a homage to Gates’s father, a roofer by trade, and to skilled laborers everywhere. They made a vibrant contrast to Gates’s crude ceramic pots, some swathed in asphalt or tar, set on pedestals of found wood. His social engagement with neighborhoods where he works isn’t always obvious in this last series, but it has a bleak brilliance of its own.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 94.