Theaster Gates has a penchant for St. Laurence, the patron saint of archivists and librarians.
Two years ago, the Chicago artist made his first big splash in Minnesota with “Black Vessel for a Saint,” a black brick cylinder housing a cast concrete figure of the saint — Gates calls him “Larry” — that he rescued from a demolished church on Chicago’s South Side. Commissioned for the grand reopening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, it was Gates’ first permanent outdoor sculpture.
“When you’re standing in the garden, St. Laurence is gesturing and looking out toward the Walker,” said Victoria Sung, assistant curator of visual arts.
The saint foreshadowed what was to come.
On Thursday, Sung and the Walker launched the first major Gates exhibition at a U.S. museum. Much like St. Laurence, “Assembly Hall” is made up primarily of castoff objects that once were treasures. In all, around 2,000 objects have taken over four of the Walker’s galleries.
Gates is known for resurrecting stuff and imbuing it with new meaning.
“He’s able to take objects that had a function and an identity and be like: Now I am taking it and sprinkling my Theaster dust on it and now it’s a different thing,” said Michael Darling, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. “I think that’s his way of testing his ability to transform objects with his own mystique.”
Taking a break during installation of the exhibit this week, Gates sipped a glass of water at the Walker’s Esker Grove. “The show is in part about the preconditions that help me make, and the preoccupations that I have with other people’s collections,” he said. “I don’t think that I am actually interested in creating my own collections. It’s super exciting to me to look at someone’s life, a life of accumulating without consciousness about the accumulation.”
Three of the galleries are devoted to different collections that Gates has resurrected, while the fourth displays more than 1,200 of his own ceramic wares.
The first gallery contains a six-channel projection featuring 130 glass lantern slides from 60,000 that he swooped up at the University of Chicago, where they once were used to teach art and architecture.
Another gallery draws upon 15,000 artifacts that Gates assembled from Johnson Publishing, the Chicago-based African-American company that produced Ebony and Jet magazines. They are arranged as part of a reading room, replete with couches and magazines.
Then there’s the “negrobilia” — everyday consumer objects featuring racist stereotypes of black people — collected by a Chicago banker, Edward Williams.
They’re all behind glass cases, like specimens in a natural-history museum. Gates took these objects in after museums rejected them. He believes they can be viewed in a new light, as artifacts marking a painful history.
In short, this is a lot of stuff to house — and to move to Minnesota.
“Because I am a bit of an object lover, it was a little bit hard to let my things go, and so the Walker in their brilliance would wait till I was out of town to stage their interventions at my studio,” said Gates. “I would ask my studio: ‘Hey, what did the Walker take today?’ And they’d be like: ‘Oh, they just took some things, no big deal.’ ”
The youngest of nine kids, Gates was born and raised in Chicago, singing in his church choir and working for his dad’s roofing business.
He got his start as a ceramicist, but expanded into sculpture, performance, installation and architectural rebuildings.
In 2010, he was included in the Whitney Biennial, and from there his career took off in international directions. In recent years, he’s exhibited in Milan, Paris, London, Berlin and Basel, Switzerland.
At the same time, urban planning and revitalization — and Chicago itself — are at the core of his practice. Long before Gates went full-time art, he was the art planner for the Chicago Transit Authority. In 2011, he became the University of Chicago’s director of arts and public life, while his Rebuild Foundation, which works to restore the cultural foundations of underinvested neighborhoods in the city, gained nonprofit status.
More than just making art, Gates reinvigorates buildings on the South Side that otherwise would be destroyed, transforming them into community engagement/cultural projects.
At his Dorchester Industries, employees create both beautiful objects and receive training for jobs in the building trades and creative industries. At the Stony Island Arts Bank, he hosts a weekly screening and discussion of films by and about black people, and also houses a variety of archival collections.
“The neighborhoods he’s working in are historically black neighborhoods,” said curator Sung. “What I think is so interesting is that he’s bringing collections to these spaces and sharing them with the community for different types of cultural events or gatherings. He is housing everyday black material culture in these spaces.”
‘A thing has life inside of it’
The concept for this show came to Sung in a slow, methodical way, not unlike the process of amassing a collection.
Over the past two years, she went to Chicago frequently, spending time with Gates in his South Side studio. They were not just talking about art, but walking. A lot.
Gates kept inviting her to stroll around the studio. It started to get old.
“We did it once and then would sit down and talk,” said Sung. “We did it again and then we’d sit down and talk. By the third time, I was thinking, ‘We’ve done this, I’ve seen everything,’ but that’s when I think it hit me — he was trying to get me to see what was in front of me.”
Although Gates’ practice is focused on objects, they reveal something deeper.
“His investment in objects is really about his investment in people,” said Sung. “All these everyday objects that are around us. ... So many things have been abandoned or discarded, and they really just need someone to care for them.”
So taking in 15,000 objects and finding a place to house them might not really be about the objects, but about the people who made them and collected them, what they represent, and the stories they tell.
Gates sees his work as “aligned with animism, or a belief that a thing has life inside of it, or spiritual life — or even a minor god, a superdeity.
“Objects have inherent power. What I have done is only the legwork of rubbing it, dusting it, photographing it, asking what is inside of it.”