Theaster Gates: Powerful Mid-Career Retrospective For Major African American Artist

Theaster Gates

There’s a prescient timeliness to “True Value” – a powerful mid career retrospective of artist, anthropologist, and activist Theaster Gates. This major black American artist is known for his sculpture, performance and large-scale building reclamation.  Gates is also Artistic Director of the Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit community arts organisation based in his neighborhood, Chicago’s Southside, which remains one of the more dangerous precincts in a city with an ever increasing murder rate.

Two days before the Dallas police murders, I walked through the spacious first floor Podium, where Gates has reconstructed a classic, small owner franchise of a neighborhood hardware store. An actual recreation of a shuttered Chicago store, Halsted Hardware, bins of screws and nails are neatly displayed and glass cases hold electrical tools. The adjacent studio/workshop with piles of artist books and materials is where new work created during the show will be displayed.

The Cisterna displays nine works specifically created for this exhibition. There’s vintagey looking paintings and a bold black and white wall of silhouetted tools.  Glazed clay figurines display pared down prehistoric elegance. Discarded materials, like oak planking from abandoned school gyms are used to create a Mondrian like floorwork. Fire hoses morph to artwork – with echoes of 1960’s Civil Rights demonstrators facing torrential hosing from Southern police. The use of quotidian and recycled objects references a dialogue about economics, art and transformation.

True confession – I succumbed to the seaside and missed the doubtlessly provocative discussion between exhibition curator Elvira Duyangani Ose, special guest and New York dynamo Thelma Golden, Director of Harlem’s studio Museum and Theaster Gates. Future programs feature  musical events and collective experiences.  Now, in light of the volatile and tragic American political situation, I wish I could have heard what this accomplished trio spoke about.

Gates’ wide range of disciplines is masterfully highlighted in “True Value.” Spanish born international curator and member of the Fondazione Prada Thought Council, Elvira Duyangani Ose has said..”as much as objects he produces and the experiences he generates – are essentially ‘a call to arms’ …… the recognition that what affects those communities subsequently affects the rest of us too; the acceptance that we are all in this together.”

7 August – 25 September Fondazione Prada Milan

Words: lka Scobie  Photo: Courtesy Fondazione Prada © Artlyst 2016