S o diverse is the practice of Theaster Gates, that it can be “quite challenging to wrap your head around,” says Victoria Sung, assistant curator at the Walker Art Center, where an expansive exhibition of the Chicago-based artist’s work opens this week. Luckily, Sung has worked with Gates before, launching his first-ever permanent public commission in the nearby Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which is run by the Walker, in 2017. Titled Black Vessel for a Saint, that work is a jet-black brick structure housing a statue of Saint Lawrence, a patron saint of librarians and archivists – alluding to Gates’s interest in revitalising forgotten collections. The new show will explore this aspect of his career, which also encompasses pottery, painting, sculpture and performance, on a much larger scale.
Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall brings together four of Gates’s archives, which he has acquired from collectors and organisations in his hometown. Usually, these collections are shown in the community spaces Gates has created in abandoned buildings on Chicago’s South Side (such as Stony Island Arts Bank), where he translates them into new artworks and uses them as part of creative interventions and to encourage social interaction. At the Walker, each room highlights, Sung says, Gates’s “practice of collecting, or what he calls resurrecting, objects as an artistic gesture in and of itself”, and his role as a figure who cares for objects and people alike.
“Theaster asks, ‘How do we start to imagine ourselves as deeper caretakers of the things that exist in the world?’ and that to me translates to so many different issues we're facing today, whether it's the environment, excess production, or people,” she says.
Opening the exhibition is a gallery filled with selections from the University of Chicago’s former collection of 60,000 glass lantern slides, which Sung says present “a very traditional Western art history”. In an example of Gates’s use of poetic intervention to reframe his archives, the artist has interspersed the slides alongside a moving image piece that highlights “minor arts” such as pottery and woodworking, as well as works by non-Western makers. “He is really interested in reinterpreting and pointing our attention to particular or problematic missions [narratives] in these collections,” Sung adds.
Central to all of the work on show is Gates’s interest in “place-making”, which has seen him use physical materials and architecture to create environments for interactions – both between people and between people and objects – as seen in his social practice initiatives in Chicago. At the Walker, another gallery takes the form of a reading room in which visitors can sit and enjoy publications from the collection of the Johnson Publishing Company, the preeminent African-American owned publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines, which filed for bankruptcy this year – making Gates’s decision to preserve its objects and history all the more poignant. The space, which also features original furnishings from JPC’s Chicago headquarters, such as a typewriter covered in faux red alligator skin, “represents what Theaster and others have called black excellence,” Sung says.
Assembly Hall marks the first time that these collections have been shown in a museum, and Sung says that “the idea of institutional critique comes out much more” as a result. This is especially apparent in a gallery focusing on the Ana J. and Edward J. Williams Collection, which comprises objects featuring racist stereotypes. The couple originally collected these items in order to take them out of circulation, before realising it was “really important to share this racist past and present”, Sung says. Gates displays them at the Walker in old-fashioned wooden vitrines, showing how institutions have played a role in creating these narratives around certain cultures or people.
"That sincerity is something we don't see every day in today's society, and it’s why I find his work to be so powerful"
Bringing all of these collections together is Gates’s deep passion for “care and manifestations of care”, Sung says. This goes right back to his early work as a potter, which the final room brings to light through his own ceramics and others he has collected – something the curator believes makes his work so pertinent. “That sincerity is something we don't see every day in today's society, and it’s why I find his work to be so powerful," she says. "He is so invested in the things and people around him.”