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

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

Theaster Gates fuses facets of art history with cultural reclamation in his new exhibition, ‘Black Vessel’ at Gagosian New York

As widely-recognised as the creative polymath Theaster Gates is, his latest show at Gagosian New York, significantly titled ‘Black Vessel’, is still the artist’s first-ever solo exhibition in the Big Apple. A majestic display of sculpture, clay vessels and works on canvas, the exhibition showcases Gates’ poetic ability to layer facets of art history, sound, racial ideology, culture and Black history in a practice that stands for both social empowerment and cultural reclamation.

For this momentous showing, Gates presents four genres of work. In an ode to the title of the exhibition, he has first assembled a collection of 30 vessels, each unique in size, shape and form. With one eye considering the vessel as an archetype through the canon of art history, Gates creates his own versions as a metaphor of contemporary existence, as one might expect.

‘I always find myself returning to the vessel. It is part of the intellectual life force of my practice and it precedes all other forms of making,’ he states, nodding to his training as a potter.

Theaster Gates, Vessel # 2, 2020, © Theaster Gates; photography; Chris Strong; courtesy Gagosian

In Gates’ hands, the universality of the vessel as a repository of ritualised significance is put to the fore. His series of large-scale pieces, made from glazed and fired clay, not only draw from the ancient traditions of Eastern, Western and African origins, but also from contemporary aesthetics too. Freestanding or paired with specially made plinths and pedestals, the array of forms and silhouettes elude time and place with their wonderfully varied textures, surfaces and tones.

The archaeological-like display of ceramics is poignantly offset by the west gallery – an enveloping chamber made of black bricks, upcycled from remaindered stock, that stands almost like a vessel itself. Complemented by a sound installation scored by Gates, the installation adds another spiritual dimension to viewing the statuesque objects.

Intervening with space is also the foundation of another arresting work, Walking Prayer, which is ongoing since 2018 and utilises a wide-ranging historical collection of published books on Black experience. The tomes are nobly displayed on vintage Carnegie cast iron shelving that transforms a library setting into a place of worship.

Above: ’Black Vessel’, 2020, installation view. Below: Walking Prayer, 2018–20, detail. © Theaster Gates; photography: Robert McKeever; courtesy: Gagosian

Speaking about 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 spatial value, the value of other people, the value of people working together, the possibility of exponential value as a result of certain kinds of bodies rubbing up against each other.’

The final component of the show, a suite of tar paintings that are inspired by Gates’ father’s livelihood as a roofer, sees the artist manipulate typical building and construction materials like industrial oil-based enamel, rubber torch down, bitumen and wood, into imposing large-scale wall works that echo the style of postwar American artists.

Dynamic, self-referential and beautifully realised, the four-part survey of Gates’ artistic practice is a captivating reassurance of just how deep he is ready to go. §

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