Visitors will encounter half a dozen basic visual ideas at the National Gallery of Art’s Theaster Gates installation. Gates, who has built a career working both as a community activist and investor in Chicago and as an international art star around the globe, calls this installation “The Minor Arts,” which refers on one level to his celebration of craftsmanship, manual labor and the products thereof, such as carving, tiling and woodwork.
But “minor arts” also suggest a far larger revaluation of the way we think of the stuff humans make. It is the arts themselves — the traditional definition of the Western arts as sculpture and painting or, in more recent years, the conceptual provocations of the contemporary art world — that Gates suggests are minor. Or, at least not as important as their institutional overlords might think they are.
The exhibition is in a space the gallery calls “The Tower,” which has become one of the most interesting venues in the institution, with a freakishly timely exhibition of Barbara Kruger’s politically trenchant image-text works that closed in January, and memorable shows in recent years by living artists including Kerry James Marshall and Mel Bochner. It is a confined space but it has high ceilings, and the challenge to the artist, or curator, is all about being big and bold in a visually compelling way while saying something pithy, intelligent and interesting. It is, perhaps, a bit like writing a sonnet: You have a limited number of lines, a lot of constraints and an audience that expects something serious and perhaps even monumental.
Gates is pithy, and visitors who know his work will recognize each of the basic visual elements as totemic within his personal vocabulary. Along one wall, a 48-foot-wide and 20-foot-high canted plane of slate roofing tiles confronts the spectator with both invitation and refusal. The tile work is beautiful, the tiles themselves chipped and worn in ways that invite sensuous scrutiny. But the wall is enormous, almost filling the space, and the material is hard, gray and unyielding. The sloped angle of its installation mimics both the roof of the church from which the tiles were sourced and a fortress wall, or a dam holding back the deluge.
Other basic visual elements include a large wooden panel of floor boards repurposed from an old high school gymnasium in Chicago, and arranged to suggest an intentional but abstract pattern that mixes the lines of a grid with a random pixilation of color; “paintings” made from roofing tar spread on Naugahyde stretched taut over frames; an ax; a cast bronze sculpture referencing several African vernaculars; and a curiously hermetic “library” tower, full of bound volumes of Ebony magazine, and enclosing another sculptural figure covered in fur.
Many of the material elements are from the South Side of Chicago, where Gates has bought properties and turned them into art and cultural centers serving a population that has been systematically disenfranchised, economically and culturally. In conversation, the artist explains that the tile roof represents a fraction of the expanse of the original roof of St. Laurence Church, a grand brick structure with Romanesque flourishes and a soaring tower that was closed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago in 2004.
“Essentially, the Catholic Church left the community,” Gates says. So did a lot of other things that a community needs for survival. The floor boards recall a closed school, and the volumes of Ebony magazine recall a fading tradition of African American cultural assertion, an archive of a parallel culture that celebrated its own artists, celebrities, fashions and cultural icons.
There are no neat dividing lines between the “art” of physical objects that Gates creates for institutions such as the National Gallery, and the “art” of his community practice, where he has jumped into the real estate market to buy and refurbish buildings and reconfigure his community (Gates studied both urban planning and ceramics as an undergraduate, and he also includes performance and music in his contemporary work). The “art” of explanation and explication are also essential to what he does. Visitors who don’t know his work, who aren’t familiar with the larger social critique he has developed (which seems to be lurking behind that enormous slate wall) are likely to be entirely flummoxed by this exhibition, which seems intentionally arranged to suggest a collection of alienated things rather than a web of interrelated pieces.
At the center of Gates’s work is Gates himself, holding it together with his charisma, his discourse, his invocations of history, and his passion for the place and the people whence he came. He didn’t invent this kind of work, which has its roots in the participatory, performance and conceptual traditions of the last century, and perhaps the Bauhaus, too. Artists such as Rick Lowe, in the 1990s, also made their art coextensive with their place-based social activism, and “social practice” work has been even more central to the serious art world since the stomach-turning excesses of the art market in the past decade and the emergence of vigorous anti-capitalist critiques such as the Occupy movement that emerged after the Wall-Street instigated crash of the economy in 2007-2009.
But Gates does this work with a multilingual panache, mastering different discourses (real estate, planning, political critique, art, theory) the way some people master different languages. The danger of this is the possibility of slippage, from attention on the work, the idealism, the tangible improvements in the community he inhabits, to the artist himself. Visitors who encounter only Gates’s art world discourse — embodied in exhibitions such as this one — will get little from it, unless they start looking into Gates himself, who he is, why he creates these curiously resistant and hermetic installations.
The visuals of this exhibition are arresting in two senses: They celebrate in a dramatic way various forms of undervalued material expression — roofing, carving, woodwork — yet they also say: Stop. There is more to what is happening here than the artist allows you to intuit from the visuals alone. Perhaps more to the point, they invite you both to linger and to leave, to go out into the world and confront its injustices.
And yet, once you have looked to Gates, once he has intimated the larger connections between the disparate parts of his practice, you are likely to be left with a sense that there is indeed something substantial going on. And it may be this: Gates’s work mimics the dynamics of colonialism, in which raw materials from one place were extracted and sent to another place, where they were converted to something more valuable, and then sold in yet other places, weaving together multiple peoples in a cycle that continually impoverished some and enriched others.
It isn’t a one-for-one simulacrum of colonialism, but it parodies the basic dynamics of it. Gates extracts the spent (rather than raw) materials from a depressed neighborhood in Chicago; adds his labor to them in a way that makes them similar to the commodities of the art world; and then he uses the resources he acquires in the art world to reinvest in a once “colonized” African American community, which benefits from the rewards of a sly inversion of the usual patterns of an old and exploitative economic system.
That leaves the visitor with one powerful and lingering question: Does this reconfiguration of colonialism enrich or deplete the art world? Is this all about the transshipment of cultural cache out of the cultural world and into the neighborhood? That is the dilemma that lurks in the title, “The Minor Arts,” for it is abundantly clear that Gates isn’t just celebrating once devalued forms of creativity, but deeply skeptical of the “fine arts” milieu in which he operates. Is it possible to be at once an insider and an outsider, to work within and critique a system at the same time?
Every successful artist working today faces that dilemma. And Gates seems to respond to it by confronting the visitor with things that are hard and sealed up, like a roof or a floor, or colorful consumer magazines rebound in the bland institutional bindings of an archive. Is it all to say: I am impervious to these questions?
Theaster Gates: The Minor Arts On view through Sept. 4 at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. For information, visit nga.go.