Theaster Gates Revitalizes Chicago Through Art and Action By Brendan L. Smith

The weathered slate roof of a demolished church…the worn floorboards of an abandoned high-school gym… narrow tower filled with almost 13,000 issues of Ebony magazine…

None of these are a likely focus for contemporary art, but Theaster Gates finds new roots rising from neglected neighborhoods and dying traditions. The Minor Arts, the 43-year-old black artist’s first solo exhibition in the National Gallery of Art, offers a compact vision of his work that explores the fraying fabric of urban institutions and the lost art of craftsmanship.   

Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

One side of the church roof has been rebuilt inside a skylit tower in the east wing of the National Gallery, dwarfing everything else with its massive size and formidable presence, rising 20 feet into the air like a fortress-wall and stretching 50 feet across the small room. The worn grey slate shingles create an orderly grid, but they show their age, chipped around their jagged edges and scarred by the elements. The historic St. Laurence Catholic Church stood for more than a century in Chicago as a pillar in the black community before it was demolished in 2014, a victim of neglected repairs and a faltering of the faith. As old members died, no one came forward to replace them and the pews fell silent and empty.

Titled Slate Corridor for Possibility of Speaking in Tongues and Depositing Ghetto Reliquary, Gates’ installation is a shrine to the enduring legacy of religion in the black community that is tinged with grief for the church’s ruin. Before its demolishment, the church’s dilapidated sanctuary, filled with chunks of concrete and shattered wood, was the setting for Gates’ video work titled Gone are the Days of Shelter and Martyr that was presented at the Venice Biennale in 2015.

In another installation at the National Gallery titled A Game of My Own, Gates rearranged the salvaged floor boards of a vacant high-school gym so the floor markings no longer offer any guidance because the rules of the game have been changed. Random squares of color in red, green, and black float amidst stripes of yellow and red. The discarded materials still possess their own humble power, radiating the subtle warmth of well-worn wood battered for decades beneath the pounding of children’s feet. The flooring is suspended above a fine white dusting of Alabama ball clay, grounding the demolished school’s truncated history to the earth beneath it—or perhaps signaling that everything returns to dust, despite our best intentions.

Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Gates was born and raised in Chicago, and he has resisted the art world’s gravitational pull toward New York. Gates’ father was a roofer, and Gates would join him on roofing jobs across Chicago, elevating a young black boy above the dirty city streets to a wider view of the world, feet planted on a roof to learn the skills of an underappreciated trade. Gates has taken his passion for cultural preservation into local neighborhoods through his Rebuild Foundation, which purchases derelict buildings to provide affordable housing, studio space, and community centers for free arts events. “Our work is informed by three core values: black people matter, black spaces matter, and black things matter,” the foundation’s motto states.

In the National Gallery, New Egypt Sanctuary of the Holy Word and Image rises in a narrow wood-hewn tower filled with almost 13,000 back issues of Ebony magazine. The crumbling magazines dating from the 1960s have been bound into thick tomes arranged by decade. The tall stacks of books fill a narrow library that has become a temple chronicling the importance of black popular culture despite the fleeting nature of a magazine’s brief shelf life. Lit by a bare light bulb, the library’s floor is a chunk of ornately decorated marble like that of a classical Greek palace or ancient library. The installation’s title may refer to the historical debate over whether ancient Egyptian society was comprised mainly of black Africans who directly contributed to the flowering of civilization even though their role has largely been forgotten.

Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Gates also juxtaposes traditional African and Western artistic traditions in Something About Modernism and Death, a small bronze sculpture of a human figure with a circular body and shovel-shaped head mounted on another block of polished decorated marble. The art world’s typically dismissive view of African art as primitive is flipped, with the African-themed sculpture rising above the lauded marble remains of Greek civilization.    

The exhibition also spills over into a second much smaller room with two paintings covered in thick black roofer’s tar that cast a glossy sheen over stretched Naugahyde. Sun Screen and Flat Bush are nearly identical except for the jagged splintered hole in Flat Bush that was formed when Gates smashed it with an ax at the start of the exhibition. Gates has said he was conveying respect for the skill involved in wielding an ax, but it feels like a typical performance art stunt when viewed after the fact. With its dim lighting and claustrophobic interior, the room is essentially a wide hallway where the work feels disjointed from the rest of the exhibition.

Gates preserves fragments of our past that have been razed in our relentless pursuit of progress while celebrating the “minor arts,” the unheralded skills of tradesmen who built the city around them, stretching from the battered gym floor to the soaring heights of a weathered church roof.

The Minor Arts closes on Sept. 4, 2017.

Brendan L. Smith is a freelance journalist and mixed-media artist in Washington, D.C.