The first thing you notice about Theaster Gates’ work is that it is incredibly beautiful. For an artist dealing with political messages, tribal reappropriation and the use of workers materials such as tar, it’s interesting to see this arresting play with aesthetic luxury and high modernism.
Intense black canvases command the largest space in Bermondsey’s White Cube, 20 or so looming down from the large white walls and holding a Rothko-like oppressive power that calls to mind objects of pure beauty and mystery. The fact that they are coated in tar, and smell very strongly of tar - horrible to some, addictive to others - does not detract from this artistic magnificence, nor from their presence purely as works of art.
There are many artists who look at reappropriation, at Western ignorance to spiritual and religious roots, who use their art to fight for social justice. But it’s very rare to see this mix with pure luxury. The works don’t shout from the wall at you, they advertise themselves as beautiful items, longing for your attention, catching the viewer out in their own magpie-like attraction to beauty and form over meaning. If you didn’t dig any further into Gates’ ideas, this body of work would appear to be a show about pattern, texture, form and art itself, working on the coattails of art history and decadent modernism. This is an incredibly clever mix, that catches you off guard, and offers a conglomeration of Eastern and Western mystique, where everything holds some kind of unspoken power - spiritual, aesthetic, financial - but doesn’t fully reveal itself. It’s more common to see these issues brought to a high art stage by their presentation simply as objects. Gates has given the spiritual and the everyday not just the status, but the appearance of high art, and has allowed discussion from this perspective.
An interesting example of this is his work Ground Rules, a ‘painting’ made up of the wooden floors of the closed down gyms in Chicago schools. A piece loaded with the history of children’s lost hopes and a country that’s happy to remove opportunities for the young is shown as a piece of abstract modernism with random slashes of colour, dots and lines from the original flooring pattern. Speaking about the work, Gates said it had originally intended to stay as a floor, laid out as it is now but on the ground, instead of hung on the wall. But hanging this work on the wall further removes it from its initial intention and use, and from its loaded meaning. Every move seems to be to make the work even more about art itself, becoming detached from its original meaning and gradually losing the political weight along the way. This perfectly mirrors his distain for the way tribal objects are shown in Western museums, where visitors pay little interest in the person who made the object, and the original power of the piece itself. It becomes purely about aesthetics and becomes an unloaded form in itself, visitors happy to enjoy it for its form and look rather than really delving into its meaning.
Similarly the tar paintings, that wouldn’t look out of place hanging amidst a wealth of luxury, have their roots in the smell of his father’s boots. Telling a warming story about his father’s old boots, he mentioned the fact that even though the boots were covered in tar and way past their use, no one threw them out. He mentioned that walking past the room that held these boots there would be a smell of tar, not traditionally a homely smell, but becoming so connected with his father that it became one with the sense of home. This playing with smell, as well as visuals, further addresses the sense of power that objects can hold. Which memories they evoke, which emotions they bring up, and the history that they come loaded with. Every object has a kind of unspoken power, whether smell, memory, intention or history. Of course, expensive art work comes loaded with its very own power and constructed sense of worth. Perhaps a perfect juxtaposition between the spiritual and capitalist, these works in their high art show the power present in the modern Western world, money and ownership.
This is a very small slice of a very complex show, that keeps unravelling meaning the longer you spend with the works. Well worth a visit to pick up on some of the pure power that has been loaded into these works by a very thoughtful artist.
Theaster Gates - Freedom of Assembly will be running until 5th July at White Cube Bermondsey, 144 – 152 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3TQ
Words by Emily Steer